The Big Idea: Anna Kashina

Warriors live to a code — but what if in a moment of crisis, that code ties your hands? Anna Kashina confronts such a scenario in her novel, Assassin Queen.

ANNA KASHINA:

“Assassin Queen” is the third and concluding book in the Majat Code trilogy, which was ultimately driven by one big idea: what would happen if immense power were to be confined by very strict rules? In particular in this series, what if you were an extremely powerful warrior, but in exchange for this power you had to live by a highly restrictive code, which would ultimately prevent you from doing what you believe is right?

This topic has fascinated me over the years, and weaves into a lot of my writing. In the Majat Code, I have finally satisfied my desire to explore it on the backdrop of a story set in medieval multicultural world featuring political intrigue, romance, adventure, and lots of fancy swordplay.

The central action in the series belongs to the Majat warriors: an elite guild of fighters that could be thought of as Eastern martial artists integrated into the medieval Western setting. The Majat Guild trains the best of the best, and then hires out their services to the highest bidder. Warriors of their top, Gem ranks, are valued the highest, especially the Diamonds that are few and far between. Each Diamond equals the fighting power of a small army, but like the rest of the Majat they are bound by the Code of their Guild. They must always follow orders and are allowed no loyalties of their own – in politics or in personal life. And, they can never leave the Guild. Once ranked, only death can remove them from their bond to the Majat.

Two of the main characters of the book, Kara and Mai, are both Diamond-ranked, and throughout the series their loyalties and their resolve to follow the Code are thoroughly tested in every possible way.

In Book 1, “Blades of the Old Empire”, Kara is thrown into a political conflict orchestrated by a devious enemy, where she is meant to become a pawn and ultimately bring about the downfall of the Majat. As the gambit comes into play, Kara is faced with a choice between duty and honor. She must kill a good man, whose magic ability is essential for the survival of his kingdom. To refuse would mean sealing her own death warrant. Once she makes her choice, Mai, who is similarly trained but slightly superior to her in skill, is sent after her – and it becomes his turn to make a choice between following orders and doing the right thing. The choices they both make lead to a revolt inside the Majat Guild (described in book 2, “The Guild of Assassins”) and eventually to a war that is the focus of “Assassin Queen”.

When I started writing these series, I expected it to be finished in one, maybe two books. But even though each book does have a satisfactory ending (or so I hope), some loose ends remained and needed to be tied up. Thus, I ended up with a series of three standalone but interconnected books. Each of them was a lot of fun to write, in all different ways.

Writing book 3, “Assassin Queen” felt very satisfying. I knew the story was going to be fully wrapped up, but having a whole book to do it gave me the luxury of doing it through very fun subplots that originally came up during my world building for the series but, as I believed, were never going to see the light of day. One of those subplots takes place in a desert Queendom of Shayil Yara, a matriarchal society modeled after the ancient Middle East. And yes, Kara has a mysterious far-reaching connection to that queendom – but of course you would have to read the book to find out more about this, and about the choices all my characters must make to find their peace.

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Assassin Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kelley Grant

Sometimes the Big Ideas of a book series can grow, and the author is left wondering, great, now, how do I make this work? With The World Weavers, author Kelley Grant considered the overall concept of the trilogy she’d written, and how to make the expansive big idea of it come to a satisfying conclusion.

KELLEY GRANT:

While watching the local news one night I began considering the likelihood that we’d created God in our image, because if he’d created us in his image and this was how he acted, we were doomed. It made me think of the Greek gods and goddesses, their very human flaws and how difficult they made life for mere mortals.

My brain started clicking. What if there were truly a greater being, but not in our form? And it created humans, but found we couldn’t govern ourselves. That One being might create some deities in our image so they could understand us, to take care of us. But, if they were human-like deities with great power, what creature would protect humans from the deities’ envy and greed and selfishness?

My dog put his head on my lap, but he was too loyal, too kind. My cat lounged on my brand new sweater, depositing fur and claw holes and gazed upon me with contempt and ownership. That seemed like a concept to write about – a land ruled by dangerous, capricious deities who were held mostly in check by great cats loyal to the One-being who created all. Throw in some rebellious humans and that idea served as the basis for the first novel of this series, Desert Rising.

The World Weavers is the concluding volume of the series. I had to bring a human rebellion against the deities to a close. But how do mere mortals war against deities without being crushed like ants? How do you separate pieces of the universe and then weave them back into wholeness, when the pieces have minds and don’t want to be woven back in? I love David vs. Goliath stories where the little guy finds a way to triumph over incredible odds. As a little person who was bullied by larger kids in school, those stories inspired me with hopes of future revenge. In The World Weavers I’d created some pretty big, epic bullies for my heroes to cast down. Perhaps too big.

It was at this point that I realized I was too stupid to write this story. In the first novel I’d created something of epic scope; an entire religious system, powerful gods, and two territories living in peace with a complicated trade network. In the second book I exploded both the religious and trade systems (oops) and created war. In this third book I was left with war and lots of pieces I needed to reassemble in some meaningful way. I knew the conclusion I needed to travel to, only, there were so many pieces…and they didn’t want to go together. I’m a smart person, but my brain hurt thinking about it, and I couldn’t afford to hire Stephen Hawking to write it for me.

So I did what writers do. I drank…umm, just kidding. I put on my rainbow underpants and sat down and plotted. I put the characters together and learned through their eyes and personalities how to reel the deities in. Though I’m not generally a plotter, during writing I charted every essential action in every chapter because I knew I would be rearranging them. I realized that my characters could not win against the deities through sheer strength. So they had to be sneaky. Sneaky is fun. World Weavers is one large, carefully plotted trap with everything at stake and little certainty of success.

But maybe, just maybe, my heroes will score another victory for the little guys.

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The World Weavers: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBook

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

The Big Idea: Bob Defendi

Bob Defendi is a gamer who knows what it’s like to be trapped in a bad game session. But as the writer of Death by Cliché, Defendi decides to take that bad game session one step farther. It’s a big step. And it goes straight down.

BOB DEFENDI:

Mel Brooks said. “Tragedy is when I stub my toe. Comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” The dark truth of comedy is that in every comedic situation, someone feels pain. Sad clowns have been a staple for far longer than people have been stapling clowns. Humor is a joyful, shining light, but it only shines because something burns.

Too morbid? How about this:

“You enter a room lit by flaming brassieres.”

Death by Cliché started with this image. A group of mature, experienced gamers gathered around a game table in a local store with a theoretically post-pubescent kid running the game. As the word “brassieres” spills from his mouth the adults exchange glances, and their stomachs sink. They know that they just sat down to play the worst game of their lives.

There’s a game designer at the table, however, and he is there to save them. He has turned his passion for games into a career, and he’s discovered that anyone who thinks work is a four letter word has a damn-poor vocabulary for swearing. There’s a dichotomy to the old axiom of “do what you love,” because turning your passion into a career irrevocably alters your perceptions of the form.

Did I mention that this is a true story?

You see, I once received a call from the marketing department of a major game company. A kid they knew to be a looney was about to demo their brand new game at a local game store. They knew it was going to be a train wreck. My job was simple: Go to the store, assess the game, and likely stage a coup because a bad game is far worse than no game, and they didn’t want complaints of “epic fail” to cost them the Salt Lake City market on the eve of a new release. I remember thinking that my worst case scenario would be to simply end the game and send everyone home before things got too ugly.

Here’s where it stops being a true story, and starts being a story filled with truth.

Our hero cannot have an easy out. He must be trapped, and so I, Bob Defendi set out to trap the semi-fictional Bob Damico in the worst game of all time. I would transform my—err I mean HIS—greatest love into the very embodiment of Hell.

That meant I’d have to kill him. The department of ironic punishments owns your sorry ass now.

Death by Cliché is about terrible storytelling. It’s about a man with deep knowledge of the form riding a train wreck like an Alanis Morrisette cover of an Ozzy Osborne song. It had to be painful enough to be funny, and funny enough to leave readers begging for more. It had to have the structural integrity of Buckminster Fuller’s bath house, built on a foundation of buckwheat pancakes.

Clichés are painful. They’re terrible. Under almost no circumstances do you want to let them into your story. You certainly don’t want to fill your story to the brink with them. You absolutely, positively don’t want to build the entire story on the bones of clichés and on the blood of bad storytelling.

Because that way lies madness.

And you really don’t want everyone to buy a copy, so you’re forced to do it all over again in a sequel.

Or maybe all of that is hindsight. Maybe I had no grand plans. Maybe I wanted to name a character Bob and start the book like this:

“Authors who write their own chapter quotes should be shot.”

—Bob Defendi

Then shoot him in the head.

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Death by Cliché: Amazon

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The Big Idea: Manu Saadia

In the future, we will have space travel and transporters and tribbles… but will we have a robust and coherent economic system? And if so, what will it look like and how will it actually function? These are the questions that Manu Saadia has asked, and in his book Trekonomics, attempts to answer.

MANU SAADIA:

As you may have heard by now, Star Trek turns 50 this year. Over the past 50 years it has become an integral part of our lives. It is a signpost in popular culture, a legit, iconic piece of Americana.

As a result, everything has been written about Star Trek. You’ve got books on the physics of Star Trek, the religions of Star Trek, the philosophy of Star Trek (my favorite: The Wrath of Kant), Trek fandom, Gene Roddenberry William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, etc, etc. Star Trek is a literary genre in and of itself.

I’ve read a lot of these books over the years. After all, I am a dedicated fan. Yet, I couldn’t find a book about the economics of Star Trek. For some bizarre reason that crucial aspect of Trek, perhaps its most singular, had not been covered. To paraphrase the other franchise, this was the book I was looking for.

So there it is. Plumbing. That’s the big idea behind Trekonomics. Plumbing. You can’t see plumbing, you take it for granted, you barely notice it. Yet plumbing is absolutely essential to life in modern society, real or imagined. Economics is the plumbing of Star Trek as much as it is the plumbing of our world. It is what gives them both their unique, distinctive shapes. It is what makes them work.

We all know that there is no money in Star Trek’s 24th century. But it goes far beyond that: in the Federation there is neither hunger, poverty nor any of the economic challenges and rewards that make our 21st century lives so interesting. In Trek’s world, what British economist John Maynard Keynes called the “economic problem,” the necessity to work to sustain ourselves, has simply gone the way of the dodo.

In the book I examine three questions: first, how does economics actually function in Star Trek’s universe? Second: is Trekonomics internally consistent? And thirdly, is it even remotely possible or is Star Trek just another cheesy SJW communist Kumbaya in space?

The C- or the S- words are the elephant in the room when it comes to Trek. Let’s dispose of that once and for all. No, Star Trek is not a communist utopia in space. It is not communist (or socialist) because communism was an economic and political response to Keynes’ economic question – how to best organize and distribute scarce resources. In an over-abundant world such as Star Trek’s, a post-scarcity world, the issue of ownership is moot. It’s very much like Iain Banks’ Culture. Why would you want to own the means of production when the value of the things you produce has converged to zero? Or, in other words, when a replicator can make any gizmo at will, there’s very little point in trying to corner the market on gizmos. Besides, there are much more rewarding things to do with your existence – mapping stellar gaseous anomalies, studying new life and new civilizations, being the captain of the flagship, boldly going etc…

To my great surprise, Star Trek’s economic ideas are remarkably consistent. The show does not break much of what we currently know of economics. Furthermore, it turns out that elements of Star Trek’s speculative political arrangements already exist in our own world – namely, the practice of making some technologies and services free and available to all without restriction, as public goods (think Wikipedia or the GPS). This strongly suggests that post-scarcity is as much a political decision as it is a matter of technological progress. That being said, as Paul Krugman wryly observed at NY Comic Con, what may hold us back on our way to a Trek-like utopia is the human propensity to remain stubbornly unhappy.

Speaking of unhappiness – throughout the years, whenever I got depressed I would usually sit down and watch a few episodes of Star Trek so as to get transported to a better and happier future. Star Trek always had a therapeutic, reparative, function in my life. But not just that: I am the kind of guy whose marriage vows were ‘live long and prosper,’ and who inserted ‘live long and prosper’ in his son’s birth announcement. While I do not usually cosplay, you could say I am a Trekker for life.

This book is a love letter to Trek, if a bit on the wonkish side. It is an attempt to demonstrate that Star Trek’s optimism, so often derided if not summarily dismissed, rests largely on its economic premise; and that said economic premise is the opposite of naive or crazy. I believe that Star Trek truly fulfills philosopher John Rawls’ famous thought experiment on the veil of ignorance: what kind of society would you design if you did not know in advance what would be your place or position in that society? Chances are it would look like the Federation’s utopia, sans the spaceships and the aliens.

That is the value of Star Trek in our world. That is why it has endured for 50 years. That is why it still matters today. Live long and prosper, indeed.

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

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

The Big Idea: Camille Griep

For today’s Big Idea, Camille Griep goes all the way back to the Trojan War for inspiration with her new novel New Charity Blues — and picks up the story of two characters you might not expect.

CAMILLE GRIEP:

“The danger on the rocks has surely past,” sang Steely Dan’s Becker and Fagen in “Home at Last,” a paean to Odysseus’ homecoming. “Still I remain tied to the mast.” From songs to poetry to fiction, retelling old stories isn’t a novel concept … or is it? (I apologize, really. Please put the tomatoes down.)

The empty spaces in fairy tales, myth, and folklore insatiably lure some writers, and I’m no exception. We’ve wallowed in the untold tales of Oz, the fleshing out of King Arthur, and the exploration of the Grimm’s Ever Afters. (Heck, I even wrote one of the latter.) With New Charity Blues, I knew I wanted to look a little deeper in the Old Story pile. Though the Trojan War and its fallout has received beautiful and innovative treatments from Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, there were two stories I thought needed a further look: those of Cressida and Cassandra.

Way back in the olden days when I was in college, I remember one of my favorite professors marveling at length at how a certain car company could be so stupid as to name their sedan a Cressida. “Hey,” I thought to myself, in a fit of tacit cowardice. “It wasn’t her fault she had to fend for herself in the Greek’s camp. Who knows, maybe those cars are scrappy and reliable?” Honestly, though, I had no idea. My family bought American, and I could only dream my moldy LeBaron into a vehicle that didn’t slurp up a bottle of power steering fluid a day.

Not too long after that, the same honors lit class read “Cassandra,” by Robinson Jeffers. “Poor bitch, be wise,” warns the poet. Though Jeffers was commiserating with the Seer in the piece, I recalled leaving class incensed at the injustice of it all. Cassandra never gets to rub her rightness in anyone’s face, never gets to say I told you so. Instead, she gets myriad odes to her supposed mental state. Suffering insanity or not, the girl was right. And I wanted to hear a story where someone had to say, “Holy Horsenoodles! We should have listened to her!”

New Charity Blues puts a magnifying glass over the perspectives of Cressida (Syd) and Cassandra (Cas), but to do so, I needed to significantly quiet the violence (the magic of trial and error revealed that one can only kill so many characters per chapter unless one has a four letter monogram). To tell the story of the two women required an allegorical war, and to tell a contemporary version of that conflict, I needed an apocalypse. I chose to enter the story after a pandemic has swept the (unnamed) country, introducing Syd amid the ruins of a city crippled by lack of water and Cas atop a desert-turned-verdant paradise.

Ripping inspiration from the headlines usually my bag, though in my case, I admit there might be a bit of subconscious passive aggression in New Charity’s water-rags-to-reservoir-riches tale. Growing up in the dry foothills of Eastern Montana, waiting for the trundle of the water truck so that I could take a shower, I might admit to a certain glee in giving the city girls the short end of the cistern measuring stick for once. Regardless, New Charity has the water the City needs. And they aren’t sharing.

As with so many wars, the resentments between the two communities run long and deep. Syd left with her mother for the city at 14 to become a dancer, leaving her small town beginnings and her friends behind for the bright lights. Her father, who had been slated to join them, found he could not and chose New Charity over her family. Readers meet Syd six years later, and she’s plenty jaded, having lost her mother, her city, her career, and her purpose. When a letter arrives with the news her father has died, a final door shuts on a possible reconciliation for all that hurt. The letter, however, contains an opportunity: a way in to the gated bastion of all things painful in her past. On a mission, Syd arrives in a New Charity much changed from her childhood, though some things have stayed the same.

Syd notices that her childhood friends, Seers Cas Willis and her twin, Len, are the same “perpetual whirlwind” they’ve always been. But while Len is fumbling his way into adulthood despite his insulated environs, Cas is reticent to even think about who she wants to be – her mother treats her like a baby, her father uses her a fortune-telling political puppet, and her brothers use her as a reliable sidekick. When Cas foresees Syd’s arrival, she’s relieved. That is, until she accidentally learns more about Syd’s father’s death; it calls into question the magic of which she and her brother are the last keepers.

And here is the crux of the big idea: Syd wants to turn the water back on and save her beloved City, but hits a snag when she learns the repercussions of her plan. Cas wants to prove her town isn’t the monster Syd is painting it as, but cannot seem to convince herself the more she learns and reflects. Their friendship grows, changes, and prevails, even as the conflict escalates via tiny decisions – ones made for all the right reasons resulting in all the wrong outcomes.

Syd’s search to find peace with herself and the people around her will hopefully allow her to fight back against her literary reputation of inconstancy. Cas’s awakening to the wider world around her will challenge perceptions of her poetic forbear’s naïve hysteria.  Their stories could be told a thousand times more, and with any luck, they will be.

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New Charity Blues Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kat Howard

“What price fame?” You’ve heard the phrase before, no doubt, but with her novel Roses and Rot, author Kat Howard puts a spin on it that you’ve probably not experienced before. Here she is to explain it.

KAT HOWARD:

My debut novel, Roses and Rot, is an extremely loose retelling of the “Tam Lin” ballad. Loose enough that I usually call it a riff, not a retelling – I took some of the pieces I liked, tossed others, switched some around. But my favorite part – the part that led to the big idea that led to the writing of the novel, well, that’s gone.

Let me explain.

It comes out in the original ballad that the young and handsome Tam Lin is in trouble because he has been stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, not exactly:

And pleasant is the fairy land,
But, an eerie tale to tell,
Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I’m feard it be mysel.

(Text from Child Ballad 39A)

And I was fascinated by this idea – the idea that somehow, somewhere in the past, something had happened to put Fairy in a sort of vassal relationship to Hell. I love this tiny piece of the ballad, but as much as I wrestled with the idea, the connection between Hell and Fairy is something I haven’t figured out it.  And no matter how hard I tried to wedge anything Hell-related into early drafts of what became Roses and Rot, it didn’t work. So I had to let it go. But that didn’t mean I had to let everything go.

In the ballad, Tam Lin has no great desire to go to Hell. And so he asks his lover, Janet, to save him so he doesn’t wind up paying the tithe that Fairy owes.

Roses and Rot as it is now came out of thinking about that. About thinking about what kind of relationships were strong enough that you could ask someone to rescue you from Hell – which was, in the ballad, a difficult and dangerous task. And about what would happen if the person who was chosen for that sort of sacrifice actually wanted to go.

Hell is easily avoided if it looks like Hell. And Imogen and Marin, the two sisters at the heart of Roses and Rot, grew up in a situation that gave them a pretty good idea of what Hell looks like. They’ve spent their lives doing everything they could to make sure they got out, but it’s never quite worked. Their Hell took the form of a person, their abusive mother, and she keeps tracking them down, keeps sliding back into their lives.

But what happens if there’s something that happens after going to Hell, and that something looks like magic, like a gift, like everything you’ve ever wanted, handed to you on a plate? What if this after (or its equivalent, since Hell as a place isn’t in Roses and Rot) looked so good, there is a competition to go to Hell?

Here’s the deal. I’ll offer it to you: You get success, guaranteed, absolute top of the charts, your name lives forever, sort of success. But first, you spend seven years in a place that’s not very nice. That might in fact be so bad you could think of it as an equivalent of Hell. Oh, and not everyone who goes makes it back out alive.

Do you take the bargain?

Imogen and Marin are two young women who’ve already been through Hell once, and they’ve gotten themselves out the other side of it. They’re both artists – Imogen a writer and Marin a dancer. They’ve worked hard, made sacrifices. What’s being offered is everything they’ve ever wanted. And there’s only one spot.

Death’s a risk that might seem acceptable to you if you grew up somewhere that felt like Hell, and paying the tithe would be your guarantee that you would be safe in the future. It might also be an acceptable risk if you’re an ambitious artist, close enough to see success, but not quite close enough to securely grab it. But your death might not be an acceptable risk for someone who loves you. They might not be able to just stand back and watch you go. They might decide to save you, even if you don’t want to be saved. Even if saving you means making sure that you don’t get everything you’ve ever wanted.

Roses and Rot began as an idea about why you might send someone to Hell. It turned into a story about why you might have to save someone from walking into it on their own.

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Roses and Rot: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Paul Cornell

Sure, Arthur Conan Doyle once killed off Sherlock Holmes, but it took Paul Cornell to do terrible things to his ghost. He does it in Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? and today in his Big Idea, he explains why he thought this might be such a great plan.

PAUL CORNELL:

The big idea behind Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? came into being in my head like a line of dominoes falling, as soon as I’d thought of the title. In the London of my Shadow Police novels, ghosts are people, either real or fictional, who are remembered by the collective minds of every Londoner, alive and dead. They’re not quite sentient. They’re only perceptible by those, like my modern Metropolitan Police officer protagonists, who’ve been gifted (or cursed) with ‘The Sight’, the ability to see London’s magic and monsters. They’re tied to the locations where they’re expected to be. So of course in that world there’s a Sherlock Holmes, and of course he’d be found at 221b Baker Street, which is, as in reality, a Holmes Museum.

Except when my heroes encounter him, he’s face down, with a ceremonial dagger through him. Because my guys somehow working alongside how the ghost of Holmes would be, in my world, with him like a hologram, unable to deduce anything, only half there… well, why are they meeting him in the first place? It’s not even interesting, it’s a side issue, a tourist attraction for them, but… if he was dead

Holmes’ body remains ghostly, intangible, fluttering in appearance between every version of him there ever was. The deer stalker, featuring so often, is a bit more solid on his varying head. So Detective Inspector Quill, Lisa Ross, and undercovers Costain and Sefton have to work out not only why he was killed, but what it means, even, to murder a ghost. Is his ‘death’ linked to the three different productions of Sherlock Holmes which are all being filmed in London at once, leading to ‘Sherlockmania’ in the capital? (And allowing me to indulge in a bit of fond satire of all the modern Holmes brands.) Is the killing linked to whoever is committing the crimes from the Conan Doyle stories, in order, at their original London locations?

All of that filled itself in as I began to work at the central idea, and figure out what kind of a puzzle I needed this time round. I wanted it be a proper whodunit, and an astute reader is, I think, able to play along. One enormous coincidence between the locations I’d already established for the series and the Holmes canon made me leap around in delight at synchronicity at play in the world.

The case also had to allow my characters to at least begin to deal with the traumatic and terrible things that happened to them in the previous book. (Or, actually, mostly, not deal.) This is the third novel in the series which began with London Falling, but I was determined, given the popularity of the subject matter, that it be entirely accessible to new readers. If you join us here, you’ll be brought swiftly up to speed with the lives of our put-upon coppers, trying to deal with a supernatural only they’re aware of, without mentors, magical skills or special items, using only their training and an Ops Board.

The Shadow Police novels are known for their big twists, and this one is as twisty as either of the previous entries, I hope. At the end of the chapter which sets up the crime scene, an ‘orgy of evidence’ with eccentric clues scattered around Holmes’ rooms, Detective Sergeant Costain can only turn to his colleagues and say ‘mate… the game is afoot‘.

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Who Killed Sherlock Holmes? Amazon|Amazon UK|Barnes & Noble|Waterstones

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

The Big Idea: Madeline Ashby

Madeline Ashby takes a while to summarize her work, including her latest novel, Company Town. But as you’ll see in this big idea, this isn’t (just) because she’s not great at making a fast pitch. It’s because there’s a whole lot going on in what she writes.

MADELINE ASHBY:

Veronica Mars versus The Terminator.

That’s how I came to think of my latest novel, Company Town, available today from Tor Books. I wish I could tell you that I’d made that pitch right from the start. But in truth, my pitching game just isn’t that strong. When I pitched my first novel, vN, I rambled on for a full half-hour before the editor smiled patiently and told me I should work on my pitching technique. He bought the book anyway.

I do get better at describing my novels after I’ve been working on them, for a while. It’s a bit like trying to explain a dream to one’s therapist: you think the nightmare is about a blinding black fog that swallows you whole, but as you narrate it, you realize it’s really about depression. I often feel that I don’t truly know what the book is “about” until I’m writing posts like these. And I rarely come up with a catchy, high-concept elevator pitch until far too late in the game.

“It’s about seeing,” I told some students at the University of Toronto about Company Town. I was there to answer questions about vN, which they’d been assigned to read and discuss. They asked about my next book, and I described it in much the same way io9 did, only with a lot more rambling and cursing: “In the near future, everybody is enhanced, with implants and other improvements that make them stronger, smarter, and more on top of everything that’s going on. Except for one person, Hwa—and her lack of enhancements turns out to be her superpower. Hwa works as a bodyguard, protecting sex workers in an oil rig that’s basically its own independent city state. But after the oil rig is bought by the wealthy Lynch family business, Hwa gets roped into protecting the youngest member of the Lynch family, instead. And meanwhile, someone is killing local sex workers, Jack-the-Ripper style.”

What that summary doesn’t mention until later is that Joel Lynch, the boy Hwa is charged to protect, appears to be receiving death threats from the future. Hwa figures the threats are bullshit, and suspects someone within the family of trying to de-stabilize Joel’s position as the heir apparent. It’s a classic noir plot: the bad-ass brought in to do a dirty job, who discovers family secrets in the family business. Only these family secrets have to do not just with big money and real estate and inheritance, but the future itself, and one very ruthless vision of it.

In my other line of work, I help people design for the future. Which means imagining many possible futures, and encouraging others to do the same. After all, as Alex Steffen is fond of saying, you can’t build what you can’t imagine. That’s the guiding principle of a lot of strategic foresight work, and it’s also a principle of Project Hieroglyph, an anthology and an ongoing project I am happy to participate in.

But doing this work means that you run up along a lot of different visions of the future, some of them not so nice, and some of them just plain horseshit. Once at a conference, I was doing a book signing with a prominent transhumanist who told a man in his sixties that yes, there would be more time to make up with his kids. Yes, even though he hadn’t spoken to them in years. Yes, he could expect a series of innovations — neural implants, smart drugs, genetic editing, whatever — to prolong his lifespan so that he could make up for whatever he’d done wrong. He said this with a straight face. Maybe he even believed it. To this day, I’m not sure.

Experiences like that got me thinking about competing futures. About how so many people view the future as a zero-sum game: I win, you lose. “Who are the winners and losers in this scenario?” is a question I get asked, a lot. Barring a major disruption (like, say, the arrival of the Internet, or the arrival of penicillin, or the birth control pill, or, or, or…) the answer is usually that the “winners” then will probably be the winners now, and the “losers” then will probably be the losers, now, because structures of power exist solely to perpetuate themselves and therefore the status quo. But thinking about “winners” and “losers” elides the variety of experience along a spectrum of possible futures, and offers only a narrow view of success or failure. The dystopia is already here. It’s just unequally distributed.

Company Town gets called a dystopia, and on some level, I guess it is. It’s a world of rampant genetic discrimination, and uncontrolled corporate oligarchy. Poverty still exists. But in a lot of ways I think it may be my most optimistic novel, yet. There’s alternative energy and vertical farming. Sex work is decriminalized and unionized and for the most part it’s a lot safer. It takes place in Canada, so there’s socialized medicine. (But it takes place in Atlantic Canada, so abortion access was once limited.) And those implants? And gene therapies? They actually work.

It’s not always great. But it’s not always awful, either. And that’s the future.

—-

Company Town: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay

For today’s Big Idea, Guy Gavriel Kay is here to share a favorite passage from a writer of histories, and what that passage has to do with his latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky.

GUY GAVRIEL KAY:

I’ve told a cute (and even true!) origin story of Children of Earth and Sky elsewhere. It involves my Croatian publisher driving too fast on a Roman road from Zagreb to the Dalmatian coast and suddenly getting An Idea: he told me I really needed to write a book about the Uskoks – Renaissance era pirates of the Adriatic whose town had been just ahead of where we were. (I didn’t know that back then, either, don’t feel badly.)

That was a decade ago, just about, but I did write that book. My new book. Eventually. Two other books came first, but…

But what I want to talk about here is another element of the origins of the novel. It isn’t the funny part, with me urgently asking him to please watch the twisty road instead of gesturing excitedly with both hands and twisting to look at me. This is the, well, the ‘thinking about the past’ part. Serious? I guess. But that’s what I do, for better or worse. I read a lot in history, I correspond with scholars, I buy them drinks, I travel, I steep myself like a Canadian teabag in boiling branch water. (Yes, I mixed northern and southern geography big time there, but I like it, so just … leave it alone, John Scalzi!)

So, the other key to Children coming together for me was a passage in a book. A great book. A monument of historical writing called The Mediterranean World In the Age of Philip II, by Fernand Braudel. I could write an essay on the greatness of Braudel, but I’ll let those intrigued google him (then read him!). I’ll say I first read this magisterial work when I was researching A Song For Arbonne 25 years ago, but it occurred to me that I might just possibly not have it entirely memorized, and a reread might be useful for the new book, mixed in with the books and articles I’d collected as I entered the research phase for Children.

Good idea, that. I get them sometimes. There is so much to be learned in Braudel, for anyone interested in the subtle, long-term forces that act upon history – and therefore on us. But here comes the point, for this essay. One passage. A short passage in a massive book leaped out at me, made me grab pen and notebook and write it down. Here you go:

Between two enemy religions it would be unwise to imagine a watertight barrier. Men passed to and fro, indifferent to frontiers, states, and creeds. They were more aware of the necessities of shipping and trade, the hazards of war and piracy, the opportunities for complicity or betrayal…”

It wasn’t that this was a shocking new thought. It is a motif I’d even touched on before in books, but the awareness came hammering home that this – this! – was a part of what the new book was going to build itself around. I was already thinking about borderlands, lives lived there, the instability (often violently so) of where the borders were, the wars waged to change them, the decisions of the ‘great’ hugely impacting ordinary lives.

What Braudel reminded me was that it went the other way, too! Men and women did not necessarily subscribe to the desires and ambitions of their leaders. They wanted to get on with their lives. Feed and shelter their children, cut enough firewood for the coming winter, build fences to protect the livestock, walls against raiders, trade with the so-called enemy (even ‘infidels’ at times) if it would help get food for those children. They wanted to arrange to marry their daughter to the son of the farmer next door (unless they hated the farmer next door). They were preoccupied by a laborer’s illness at the wrong time (harvest season!), by an insult in the tavern, by fears for their own immortal soul. They thought about trade goods and desire and gossip and needing new oxen and the pleasures of a spring morning with the leaves coming.

These ideas, these priorities in the lives of people locked in for me as core themes for the new book. I’d aim for a novel that touched upon, that even appeared generated by a massive conflict among powerful empires and states. But I’d use that as a backdrop, a framework, for a book that paid really close attention to how men and women sought (with varying success) to live and shape their own lives in such times, across such borders, during the wars.

That’s what a single passage in Braudel brought back home to me, and what Children of Earth and Sky told me it wanted to be about, right then. That’s what I’ve tried to make it. The stories of the ‘great’ are not the only stories we have to tell.

—-

Children of Earth and Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Ada Palmer

Gentle reader, was it chance or providence that brought you here today to read Ada Palmer’s Big Idea piece about her novel, Too Like the Lightning? And does it matter if it were either? And what do chance and/or providence (or the mindset that would attribute your presence here to either) have to do with Palmer’s novel? Gentle reader, read on.

ADA PALMER: 

Too Like the Lightning has a cover with flying cars swooping in to land on a sparkling futuristic city above a modernist sans-serif title font. Its first page has 18th century period typography and woodblock ornaments, with permissions in French and Latin saying that its publication has been approved by religious censors and the King of Spain. The cover and title page together give you a kind of temporal whiplash, and genre whiplash too: is this historical fiction or SF? And that temporal/genre whiplash is exactly what the book is like.

In college I read Voltaire’s short story “Micromegas” (1752), one of the oldest works we can unreservedly label science fiction. In it, a pair of giant aliens—one from Saturn and one from a huge planet orbiting Sirius—visit the Earth. Since they stand many miles tall, at first they think Earth is uninhabited, but then they spot a (tiny tiny) whale, and then a ship, which turns out to be swarming with (microscopic) creatures with language: humans.

So far this First Contact story could run in Analog, but the fact that “Micromegas” is 250 years old manifests, not in its premise, but in what the humans and aliens talk about once contact has been made: How is the Hand of Providence visible in the designs of our three planets? Is Descartes right? Newton? Which is the best form of government, absolute monarchy or constitutional monarchy? Thomas Aquinas says God designed the whole universe for the good of mankind, what do you think of that, mile-tall giant aliens who live for 50,000 years? (They laugh.)

For me, the exciting difference between “Micromegas” and a modern short story is what I call Voltaire’s “question palette”, i.e. the big hot issues of Voltaire’s day, which he used aliens to investigate, the same way modern authors have used them to investigate 20th century questions, like the limits of what it means to be human, or the possibilities and consequences of democracy, empire, fascism and other modern political movements. Science fiction’s question palette has shifted many times over the 20th and (now) 21st centuries too—reacting to Marxism, DNA breakthroughs, the Cold War, and 9/11 as Voltaire reacted to Hobbes, the microscope, the War of the Austrian Succession, and the Lisbon Earthquake—but shifts over decades are nothing compared to shifts over centuries.

When you read Voltaire’s science fiction, his unfamiliar questions make it feel like you’re reading science fiction written by an alien as well as about an alien, since its author is an alien in time. Given how complex and weird history is, a mind from 1750 is often a lot stranger and more alien than the aliens we invent to populate our alien planets, and anyone who reads or watches old SF (think original Star Trek) can see the mores of the decade it was created leaking through in every “alien” society.

That’s what I wanted to do in my Terra Ignota series, to write something that would feel alien the way Voltaire feels alien, by writing in a classic SF setting but with an 18th century question palette. Too Like the Lightning takes place in the 2450s, in a pretty great future, not perfect, but full of flying cars, glittering cities, robot helpers, and school trips to the Moon, the classic signatures of World-of-Tomorrow type Golden Age SF futures. But the narrator writes in an Enlightenment voice: personal, opinionated, intimate like memoir, with long tangents about philosophy and history, and personal addresses to the “Gentle Reader.”

The question palette is Enlightenment to match: “Do you think it was Chance or Providence, reader, which made his flying car touch down on that particular morning?” We meet these kinds of questions a lot in historical fiction, and period fiction, but no one has asked them of a Golden Age type science fiction future before. They bring out different issues: constitutional governments vs. tradition-based governments, balancing religion and Reason, the best kind of monarchy, cultural relativism when it was a quirky new idea, and questions about the place of humanity in the cosmos when the cosmos was a very different shape.

I put a lot into my world building—new government models, family structure, identities—but I tried to build these out of 18th century trends too, imagining a future with roots in the long continuity of historical change. I don’t skip the 20th century—this future has continuity with our present—I just did my “What should be different in the future?” brainstorming by focusing on the things which started to change 250 years ago and are still changing now, instead of concentrating on 20th century changes. For example, Enlightenment radicals really wanted to reform the justice system, to get away from torture and the death penalty, and try deterrence-based justice instead of retribution-based justice.

We’re still deep in that same reform process, discussing the definition of torture and the utility of incarceration, so my 25th century judicial system uses 20th century ideas, and 18th century ideas, and even 16th century ideas that are all part of one long-term debate. After all, ideas get revived a lot in history. If the authors of the US Constitution were looking in part at ancient Greek democracy, then aren’t political reformers in the 2450s as likely to get ideas from 1750 as 1950?

So, that’s why my cover and my title page seem like a mismatch, but both are just right for a future built out of the past, rather than out of the present, and approached with a question palette from the past as well. And it turns out that, if you ask a different century’s questions, a Golden Age flying cars future has a lot of new things to tell us.

When you do a public reading of the first chapter of your book, you always get some un-answerable questions, the ones whose answers would be a huge spoiler, like “Who planned the break-in?” or “The narrator is a convict, but what did he do?” But I was shocked (and delighted) at my very first ever reading to get exactly the right un-answerable question, the one which Voltaire, and Diderot, and the Marquis de Sade (he’s from the Enlightenment too, after all) would have asked right away of any book like this. A question which proved I’d started the book off right: “So, is there Providence?” Spoiler!

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Katrina Archer

Real-world tragedies, best-selling action novels and the Canadian undead — these are some of the influences that Katrina Archer had in mind while writing The Tree of Souls. What did she take from each and how did they come together in her novel? Archer is on it, below.

KATRINA ARCHER:

The Tree of Souls was born from not one, but three ideas that together ask one Big Question.

The first idea: school shootings. Which sounds strange for a story set in a world without gunpowder, firearms, or even schools, but The Tree of Souls might never have seen the light of day if not for a school shooting in my hometown. I was outlining the sequel to my first novel, a young adult fantasy, when it happened. I go to a very dark place when these events occur, because I was in engineering school in Montréal when a bitter, envious man gunned down 14 female students at a neighbouring school. Including women in my circle of friends. So yet another shooting nearby made me feel like nothing had changed, and my light fantasy for teens took an inappropriately dark turn.

Instead of forcing a story I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to write, I channeled those unhappy energies into the characters of The Tree of Souls. Some of whom feel the same sense of rage combined with unchecked entitlement that I suspect drives a subset of mass shooters. While there’s no single root cause for these (I don’t have the training to really delve into the psychology), picking an emotion to focus on was my way of trying to make sense out of events I’ll never truly understand.

The second idea is why I sometimes pitch The Tree of Souls as “The Bourne Identity for fantasy readers.” Because my protagonist is an amnesiac—here, a woman named Umbra—with dangerous skills, who doesn’t know if she is on the side of right or wrong. As the Magic 8 Ball might say: signs point to “wrong.” (Herein end any similarities to The Bourne Identity.)

I’ve always loved the amnesia trope. One of my favourite characters ever is Roger Zelazny’s Prince of Amber, Corwin. He of the less than complete memories. Yet people often advise novice writers to avoid the amnesia cliché. A wise person once told me I’d likely only get one shot at it in my career, so choose wisely when to tackle it.

Amnesia creates drama precisely because the character doesn’t know what type of person they really are. I used it as a plot device to force Umbra to see herself as others do—even if she ultimately doesn’t enjoy the view—because she’s now a stranger in her own life.

The tricky line to walk with this as a writer is: how do you get a reader to empathize with a character who doesn’t particularly like herself? It took a few drafts to get that balance right, before Umbra started to feel like she was fighting for herself rather than simply against her sketchy past.

All of the above might sound unrelentingly grim. Which brings us to the third idea: I love vampires. Sexy vampires especially. I’d love to write the great Canadian vampire story. But. I had nothing new to say about them (I do solemnly swear that if I ever come up with anything, my vampires won’t be sparkly. #TeamLestat). The lack of a vampire idea obliged me to create a different kind of seductive, conflicted character, one who looks human on the surface, but also has deadly supernatural skills.

And thus was born Umbra’s power over souls. One that was very fun to write, and that gives her some cool options for getting into and out of trouble. On the surface, it’s this power that makes her a creature of death, but ultimately her human failings—her inner demons—are at the root of her travails.

Umbra can’t move forward unless she exorcises these demons and learns how to use her power for good. If she fails, I wrote a tragedy. If she succeeds, I wrote a redemption story. The one I committed to paper is *** SPOILERS ***.

Put together, the three ideas force Umbra to ask herself that one Big Question: “Am I a monster?”

Guess where you’ll find the answer.

The Tree of Souls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Ruth Vincent

In today’s Big Idea, debut novelist Ruth Vincent essays this issues of depth, darkness and delight, as they relate to novels in general, and her novel Elixir in particular.

RUTH VINCENT:

Does a story need to be dark to be deep? Does substantive always have to equal depressing in fiction? I’ve always firmly believed no, and in my debut novel my goal was to hit that point of intersection between joyful and thoughtful. My series fits the nebulous category of ‘urban fantasy’ because it takes place in modern times albeit with magic, and it’s set at least partially in a city (not just a city, but the city: New York). But I’d grown tired of the gratuitously grim urban fantasies that had become something of a trope in the genre. I wanted my book to be unabashedly fun, without being fluff.

How to do that, I realized, rested almost entirely on the narrative voice. And thus I wrote my story in the first person POV of a fairy. Fairies don’t have the same level of damage as vampires, werewolves, or other such supernatural creatures. They’re not cursed; they’re not tortured – they’re not necessarily good, but they’re hardly ever grim. Even the fairies in Celtic folklore, while a far cry from the sanitized pixies of Disney films and frequently malevolent, are usually depicted as playful. If I wrote a fairy heroine who wasn’t enjoying her own story, I wouldn’t be being faithful to the mythological roots.

My heroine, Mabily “Mab” Jones, has a unique perspective in that she’s a changeling; she’s in the human world but not of it. It’s a position that comes with inherent conflict – loneliness, inability to ever truly belong, plus hurt at her betrayal (she was tricked by the Fairy Queen into getting stuck in human form) and a deep-seated guilt over the human girl she unwittingly displaced. However, twenty-two years after the switch, when the story begins, Mab has learned to make the best of a bad situation. She’s a bit of an amateur anthropologist – a student of the human society into which she’s been thrust. She finds us humans fascinating, frustrating, but always wryly amusing. In the hands of a different author or through the eyes of a different narrator, this could have been a much darker story – but Mab still sees her human life as a grand adventure (though one she never chose) and her optimism is the filter through which we read some of the more brutal and disturbing aspects of the book.

Writing a book that reads as effortless actually requires a lot of effort, perhaps more than one that doesn’t. I wrote almost 1,000 additional pages of drafts that I ended up throwing out before I honed in on the voice I was seeking. Luckily, since it was my first book and I didn’t have a deadline breathing down my neck, I had the luxury of time to do that (this will not be the case with Elixir’s sequel, which releases later this year!)

When I say Elixir was the first book I ever wrote, what I mean is it’s the first book I ever finished. My hard drive is a burial ground where many unfinished manuscripts have gone to die – weighty, ‘important’ works that I grandiosely day-dreamed would win me respectable literary acclaim, but then ultimately abandoned, because I didn’t find these stories fun enough to sustain me when the writing got tough (as writing inevitably will.)

This doesn’t mean I don’t explore the dark side of the human heart in my fiction – I find fantasy the best medium for doing that – or that I can’t explore deeper societal issues. My stories have never been overtly political, and yet the opportunities for metaphor are rich. The series is about a society (fairies) utterly dependent upon a limited, non-renewable resource (Elixir) that powers all their magic and their way of life. They do increasingly unethical things to produce and control it, and innocent children caught in the crossfire pay the ultimate price. Sound familiar? But a reader could easily miss all that and simply be entertained by an adventure tale with a touch of romance. I tried to never lob readers over the head with any heavy handed message. I’ve always believed writers should just tell the story – and not deprive readers of the pleasure of their own interpretations by telling them what it means.

I was academically trained to write literary fiction, and I was afraid, if I wholly embraced writing the genre fiction I so delighted in reading, I would never become a “serious writer.” Perhaps that’s true. Urban fantasy novels don’t exactly get reviewed by The New Yorker. But in writing Elixir I realized I didn’t want to be a serious writer; I wanted to be a joyful writer.

Maybe we write the books we want to read? As a reader, I wanted a less brooding, less bloody book, a fantasy whose epic battles are of the internal variety. And as an author, I know what a long hard slog writing a novel can be. The only thing that sustains me, once the heady infatuation of the initial idea wears off and the rewrites seem Sisyphean, is joy.

It’s joy that I want to spread through my stories. After all, the world is depressing enough on its own – we don’t need all our novels to be.

—-

Elixir: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Books|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Marko Kloos

It’s not often that a highly successful military science fiction series involves me in some way. But here’s Marko Kloos explaining how I was in a small way tangentially a part of the creation of his highly successful military science fiction series, of which Chains of Command is the latest installment.

MARKO KLOOS:

The first book of what is now called the Frontlines series came to be because of a highly effective motivator: last-minute deadline panic.

Eight years ago, I applied for a slot in a writing workshop called Viable Paradise. I knew a few people who had attended VP, and they all spoke highly of it. When I checked the roster of instructors, I was happily surprised to see the names of some heavy hitters in the SF business: Steven Gould, Laura Mixon, Elizabeth Bear, Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, Jim McDonald and Debra Doyle, and some guy named John Scalzi. To top off the list of arguments for attendance, the workshop was reasonably affordable, geographically close (it takes place every year on Martha’s Vineyard, and I’m in New Hampshire), and took only a week, which was eminently swingable on both my stay-at-home parent schedule and stay-at-home parent wallet.

The only trouble was that I heard about the workshop a week before the close of the submissions/application period, and I needed a few short stories or novel chapters to send in as application pieces for evaluation. I had neither.

So I sat down and wrote a few chapters of a fantasy novel that, in retrospect, should have been titled “The Journeys of Generica: Book One of the Derivative Kingdoms Saga.” At the time, I thought it was decent enough, and I gave the samples to my wife to read. She did so, and then tactfully suggested that I may want to send in, uh, something else.

With six days to go on the application deadline (and having to subtract two days from that to account for Priority Mail), I was in a bind. While I had always wanted to write SF or fantasy, I had no finished or even reasonably progressing projects in either genre on hand. I had two trunk novels sitting on my hard drive, but they were general fiction. I had recently read a novel called Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and figured that because I enjoy reading military SF, I’d probably enjoy writing a military SF story. I served in the German military during the tail end of the Cold War, and I had always wanted to have a vehicle to make use of all the little sensory details and experiences from my own military service, and baking it all into a Military SF novel seemed like a good idea.

The boot camp sequence is practically a trope in the Military SF genre, and “Young Person Goes To War” is shorthand description for three quarters of Military SF debut novels. That’s not a terribly bad thing—when you go to the zoo, you’re either happy to see the giraffes again or you aren’t, and Military SF readers in particular like to see the giraffes, so to speak. But I had this idea in my head to put a different spin on my version of Space Marine Boot Camp. Current recruiting practice treats the new applicant as a valuable resource because the military usually has to work hard to fill all its slots with volunteers. Most future boot camps in fiction do the same—the old saw about tough drill instructor love, motivating the recruits to excel and be All They Can Be.

What if you had a future military that was so swamped with applicants that the D.I.s wouldn’t have to give a rat’s behind whether their charges make it through training or not? What if the D.I.s could wash people out at will because they knew exactly that five hundred applicants would stand in line tomorrow to take that slot?

From there, it was a simple exercise: thinking up a near-future version of North America where life sucks. Overpopulation, pollution, rampant crime, scarce resources, a population limited to 2,000-calorie-a-day rations of processed crap that’s made to taste awful on purpose to discourage overconsumption. Things would have to be so awful so much for the majority of the population that the prospect of death in battle would seem a fair trade for a shot at a paycheck and food that isn’t made from soy and recycled human waste.

With only a few days to think about the world-building and actually doing the writing work, I drew that crapsack world in rough sketches—just enough detail for the reader to get the idea, not so much that I’d have to spend weeks and months making up maps and diagrams and elaborate timelines. So Terms of Enlistment, the first Frontlines book, established the main conceit of the series, the grunt’s-eye view of the conflict, told in first person perspective. We see what the protagonist Andrew Grayson sees. We know about the world and its technology what he knows—no more, no less. It sort of puts the tech and the political machinations into the background bit and makes them scenery. With that kind of storytelling approach, other things move into the foreground: all the sensory details and awfulness of battle as experienced by the guy who doesn’t have a god’s eye view of events, filtered through the worldview and morality of a twenty-year-old kid from the future version of the projects.

With Chains of Command, the Frontlines series is now four books strong, with a fifth one in the works and a sixth under contract. My hasty half-ass first few chapters set the foundation for everything that followed, and it turned out to be a fortuitous restriction. With the immediate viewpoint and the broad-stroke pictures of the world as Andrew sees it, I was free to focus on character development instead of meticulous world-building and exposition. And as Andrew gets older and more experienced, the novels start addressing things that he would begin to think about after a few years of service to a system that tries to hold the lid down on a pot that’s about to boil over. Do you always follow orders, or are there just and unjust ones? At what point do you use your own judgment and question authority while fulfilling your oath of service? Military SF is often focused on the pulling of triggers (complete with three-page descriptions of the weapon system to which said trigger is attached), but how do you decide when not to pull the trigger?

Frontlines makes an attempt to address that conundrum, and it has been great and challenging fun to let young Andrew Grayson mature over the course of four novels and find his own answers to those questions.

—-

Chains of Command: Amazon | Indiebound | Powell’s | Audible

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The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has made a career out of imagining the some of the less pleasant futures that are possible given humanity’s current path, written brilliantly enough to keep you turning the pages even as you realize to your horror he might turn out right about these things. The Water Knife, a hardcover bestseller now releasing in paperback, is no exception, and in this Big Idea, Bacigalupi writes about when he was writing the book, the present was influencing the future world he was creating.

(Disclaimer: I liked this book enough to blurb it.)

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

When I began writing The Water Knife in 2011, the Texas drought was in full swing: record-breaking temperatures, low reservoirs, dying cattle, and a governor who was encouraging people to pray for rain.

As I worked on The Water Knife in 2012, I attended a drought conference in Colorado, my home state. Snowpack in many areas was nearly non-existent. Tourism and agriculture were hurting. Reservoirs were at historic lows. Forest fires were tearing through parts of the state, and those places that burned then turned into mudslide zones when rains finally did come. And at the drought conference, no one could utter the words “climate change.”

By the time The Water Knife was published in 2015, the western United States was in the grip of a new epic drought. The Sierras had no snow. Hundred year-old orchards were dying. Reservoirs throughout the state were draining dry.  Above Los Angeles, they were pouring plastic balls into their reservoirs to slow evaporation. Desalinization plants were once again under discussion, despite the costs and environmental complications.  In Nevada, Lake Mead sank to to historic lows, and Las Vegas finally completed a multibillion megaproject to dig Intake Number Three, a last bid attempt to allow them to pump from a reservoir that had been sinking for a decade. In the Northwest, fires raged through tinder dry forests, and a heatwave seized hold of Portland, Ore.

When I conceived The Water Knife, I was aiming to create a visceral experience of a future that I feared was rushing toward us. I thought I was being sober and serious when I set the Big Daddy Drought of the novel some decades still into the future.

By the time the book actually came out, snowpack in the river drainage where I live was at 1% of normal.

In some ways, the droughts of 2015 made The Water Knife seem prescient.  The news was stuffed full of stories of wells going dry, battles over water rights, farmers watching worriedly as dry cities turned their thirsty gazes on farmers’ water rights.  And then of course, there was Syria, collapsed into a civil war that looked a lot like what a model for a real water war might look like. Not a war over water, but a war sparked and exacerbated by drought and food scarcity, that was already starting to put domino pressure on other countries as refugees began to flee the horror of their collapsed country.

There it all was: fires, scarcity, refugees.

It made The Water Knife seem, if not predictive, at least entirely reasonable.

But the feeling I really had was that I had missed the story. Even though I had been trying to write a future of water scarcity that would seem both real and believable and imminent, as I went out on book tour, I realized that I had been deluding myself as much as an idiot climate denier like Rick Pray-For-Rain Perry.

In attempting to make the book seem reasonable and “realistic,” I had set my climate disaster a comfortable few decades still in the future.  But the the uncomfortable reality that even I don’t want to honestly face is that we simply don’t know when climate disaster will come. Science tells us that that climate disaster is out there, looming—more and more likely to occur—but no one can say exactly when. And as I toured the parched western states last year, it was a little frightening to realize that even someone like me—who spends most of my time being anxious about what tomorrow may bring—would prefer to delude myself into believing that while the risk is out there, it won’t come yet.

Not Yet.

That’s our problem. The same problem we humans always face.  Our human instinct is to pray and hope that even if  bad things are coming, that they aren’t coming yet.  I make fun of Rick Perry because hides from the data that says his state will increasingly become a desert, but really, we’re all in denial.

I certainly was in denial, even as I wrote The Water Knife, even though I couldn’t see it.

Not Yet.

We want to keep flying around the world, and driving our cars and expanding our cities into deserts. We want to keep buying gasoline and importing our gadgets from around the world, and enjoying the fruits of our technological age. We want so desperately to keep going with our immediate comforts, that we willfully avoid the fact that Not Yet might turn out to be Right Now.

Right now, El Nino has been kind enough to dump some rain on California and some snow in the Rockies, and so we might be tempted to think that today really will turn out to be Not Yet. But down in Australia, where drought has run for the last decade, the reservoirs outside of Perth aren’t just low as they are here in the States—they’re empty. Syrian refugees continue to swamp Europe, people desperate to get away from the conflict in their own land, and the dams and rivers of the middle east are strategic assets for the warring powers. And of course, here in the United States, we see demagogues and fear-mongers gaining in popularity, the politics of fear of outsiders who might need desperately to move as their own parts of the world become uninhabitable.

One thing I do think I got right in The Water Knife is that climate crisis and collapse won’t come all in a rush. It will be a slow accretion of problems, accidents, and missteps. A steady accumulation of stressors and shortages that finally trigger political and social unravellings, that then cause further domino effects. The Water Knife isn’t about a lone hardy band of survivors after a climate apocalypse, it’s a story about millions of people, all trying to adapt and shift, after spending too much time believing that Not Yet meant Never Will, and I think I got that right, because I see my own instinct to keep making bargains with against my son’s future, telling myself that I still have time before a true catastrophe. Telling myself that we all do, even if it’s just another decade or two.

Some people say that a story like The Water Knife is unrealistic. A broken future that will never be, because we won’t ever be that stupid, or selfish, or lacking in foresight.

I do hope they’re right.

—-

The Water Knife: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (expand on the page). Visit the author’s site.

 

The Big Idea: Gillian Murray Kendall

Who dares to broach The Book of Forbidden Wisdom? And who dares to write it? Gillian Murray Kendall, who has done the latter, talks about what that book means and represents in the world she’s created for it.

GILLIAN MURRAY KENDALL:

The evil brother of Lady Angel Montrose interrupts her wedding and threatens her life in order to get information from her about the location of The Book of Forbidden Wisdom.  Lady Angel, her sister, Silky, and her best friend, Trey, flee in the night on their own quest to find The Book, which all believe contains great power and the access to great wealth. On their journey, they are joined by an itinerant Bard—the same one who played at Angel’s ill-fated wedding. Angel, whose marriage was to be one of convenience, finds herself drawn to the dark allure of the Bard—at the same that her friend, Trey, makes it clear he has always loved her.

The Book of Forbidden Wisdom is a tale of wild adventure that explores the nature of good and evil as well as the power of art to transfigure life; it is about a quest for wisdom and power that becomes, too, a quest for love.

Enough stuff?

Well, no. At the heart of the book lies a big idea: in the land that Angel and her sister, Silky, are forced to flee, the Great Aristocratic Houses are built on the sweat and tears and lives of the casteless and of vagabonds. And when Angel and Silky run from their evil brother, they are leaving behind a crushingly oppressive set of social mores: men and women cannot so much as touch before arranged marriages; the aristocracy and the casteless live in different worlds—one of unimaginable wealth, and one of poverty.

Once on the road with a Bard, however, Angel finds herself questioning everything she has been taught. Bards are landless, almost vagabonds, but traveling with the Bard makes it clear that all of her stereotypes are false. And the time comes when rules have to be broken.

Because Angel drowns. Or so it seems. After she groggily comes to after being submerged in flood waters, she notes that: “This thing is this. If an arrow pierces your heart, or a horse stomps on your head, you’re dead. Sometimes, though, with drowning, a person has a second chance.”

That second chance comes from the Bard—who she realizes is neither vassal nor freeman. Neither caste nor casteless. He saves her.  Even so, Angel’s best friend, Trey, is horrified that, to bring her back to life, the Bard must actually touch Angel. Angel’s sister, Silky, on the other hand, seems to understand that the rules are changing:

“’That man,’ said Silky to Angel, ‘took you to the bank and squished the water right out of you. Trey was going to punch him for touching you, but I wouldn’t let him.’”

Despite the fact of saving Angel, the Bard wants no part of the Great Houses. But circumstances throw the characters together.

Angel is glad that the Bard will accompany them, although at first she sees him as others might, as belonging to “a caste so low it almost didn’t count as a caste, a caste forbidden from marriage to the landed, from carrying weapons, from fraternizing with nobility.” After hearing the bard sing, however, she has to acknowledge that he carries his own kind of power and a kind of magic—that of art, of song, of fiction. Bards, she realizes, are not “below” the Great Houses, but “beyond.” And Angel knows now that it would never be enough to thank the Bard for saving her life by giving him the tokens of the Great: by “paying him off with jewels” or “giving him the freedom of [her] lands.” And as the Bard travels with Angel and Silky and Trey, slowly the differences between the landed and the casteless erode.

The Book of Forbidden Wisdom, after all, opens with a prophetic dream, in which Angel sees “the casteless rise where the Great had been.” And it ends— well, I’m not going to tell you how it ends, except that major plot elements are resolved, while inroads are made into the caste system. And the power of literature lies behind the changes.

The quest, after all, is after a book—The Book of Forbidden Wisdom—which is something not just forbidden but subversive.

Perhaps all books are so.

The firemen of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 would agree.

So would those everywhere who burn and ban books.

Luckily, one can’t burn or ban the ideas in them.

Someone who read The Book of Forbidden Wisdom asked me: “But what’s next?  You make it sound as if there might be some kind of revolution in your next book.”

Well, maybe.

—-

The Book of Forbidden Wisdom: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

“TEHETHJO” is one heck of an acronym, but Alethea Kontis knows what it means, why it’s important, and how it relates to her new novel Trix and the Faerie Queen

ALETHEA KONTIS: 

In my fairy tale books of Arilland, Mama Woodcutter always says, “Everything happens for a reason.” She does that because my own mother has always said, “Everything happens for a reason.” (We writers do tend to write what we know.)

But we all know that’s a load of crap, right? People say, “Everything happens for a reason” in an attempt to make you feel better about The Exceptionally Horrible Event That Has Just Occurred (TEHETHJO). Like, for instance, when you splatter turmeric all over your vintage white shirt with the handmade Belgian lace, but the red top you’re forced to change into is the one that catches Prince Harry’s eye and WHAMMO. You’re sipping tea and eating eggs with the queen because reasons.

Yeah. Right. No. Things in life just happen—good or bad—and those things become the reasons for whatever happens after. It’s plain-old scientific cause and effect. Now, how you decide to act in the aftermath of TEHETHJO is the sort of thing that defines you as a person. There’s fate, and there’s free will.

I am all about forging one’s own destiny.

Maybe it’s because I started out as a child actress, or because I did a lot of improv in high school, but all my TEHETHJOs typically turn out pretty great. I don’t make lemonade, I make limoncello. Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t automatically turn life into sunshine and baby otters while I’m standing at ground zero during global thermonuclear war.

Like, for instance, when my boyfriend and my publisher dumped me in the same 24 hours a couple years ago. (Small spoiler: Prince Harry doesn’t show up at the end of this, so don’t hold your breath.) You know that thing where a person’s soul metaphorically shatters into a million pieces? That. TEHETHJO. All over the inside of my poor Firefly-class Volvo.

But if TEHETHJO hadn’t occurred, then the book that’s releasing this week would never have existed. NEVER. And it’s the best book I’ve ever written.

Trixter was meant to be a stand-alone novella that told the story of what happened to Trix Woodcutter while his sister Saturday was questing about in Hero, since the publisher had politely asked me to remove his entire subplot. At the same time, it was my tribute to Andrew Lang’s Crimson Fairy Book. It was not meant to be Volume One of The Trix Adventures. That fey scamp of a little brother was not meant to find a companion and traverse continents and chat up all sorts of legendary beasties and save the world. He was not meant to become my fairy tale Doctor Who.

And yet…there I was, writing a scene at the end of Trix and the Faerie Queen that was not in my outline, giggling and weeping over my keyboard at the same time. Because reasons.

The Trix Adventures are beautiful books, and the rest of the Woodcutter Sisters will be better for me having written them I have become better for having written them. I have been made whole again, regenerated, and Alethea 3.0 is fantastic. I did that. TEHETHJO might have been the inciting incident, but I’m going to stand up and take credit for this one.

If everything really does happen for a reason, the reason Trix and the Faerie Queen exists is me.

And I am so incredibly proud of that.

—-

Trix and the Faerie Queen: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

Author Myke Cole is back with Javelin Rain, another admixture of modern military and magic. But writing fantasy doesn’t mean reality can’t come inform or come through in the writing. No, as you’ll read, Cole’s own experiences inform the worlds he’s creating.

MYKE COLE:

This one’s a bit personal, so hang with me.

Relationships are tough.

Human beings are intensely complicated. We’re multifaceted bundles of nerves floating in bioactive soup, lightly salted with electro-chemical signals. The chemical bath and the intricate twists and turns of the human gestation process are beyond complex, and produces individuals as unique and diverse as the snowflakes in a driving blizzard. And that’s before you layer over everything that isn’t driven strictly by biology: culture, experience, society and upbringing.

When you consider how varied humans are, it’s amazing to think that any two of us ever find someone else so aligned, so fundamentally compatible, that we can imagine walking through the rest of our lives together. My best friend once described love as “When your crazy matches someone else’s.” Some search their entire lives and never find their opposite number, the person who matches their particular brand of crazy. When they do, it’s a thing worthy of recognition and celebration. Most societies have just such a custom, we call it a wedding, and while folks are doing it less and less these days, it’s still got a pretty solid grip on the popular imagination.

Marriage is ingrained in our folklore, and when we think of the fairy-tale term “Happily ever after,” a wedding and happy married life is usually the image conjured up.

But those of us who have been married know that it never quite works that way. Remember that soup of factors I just described? That whirling storm of DNA and cultural influences isn’t static. People change over time. Sometimes the changes drive them closer together, and sometimes the changes drive them farther apart.

And sometimes the changes are so drastic, so extreme, that nothing can ever be the same again.

And that’s the big idea behind Javelin Rain.

I lost the love of my life back in 2007 after my second tour in Iraq. It was nobody’s fault. She had signed up to be with an easy-natured, fun-loving sort, the man I was before the suck did its terrible work. Each time I came home, I was a little more serious, a little more vigilant, a little less likely to enjoy going out dancing or talking about nothing with acquaintances in a bar. My goals changed. Buying a house and maybe getting married and redoing the kitchen wouldn’t be enough anymore. I was restless and bored with the old goals, I had become someone with a desperate need to mark the world. Hours spent at a club were hours that could be spent working on a manuscript, or honing my body for service, or consuming media in the same way a prizefighter watches a tape of his upcoming opponent.

She had signed up for a comedy. She got a drama. When she accused me of no longer being the man she fell in love with, I could only nod and agree.

It’s a sad story. I’m long over her and have moved on with my life, but I still remember that sense of chasm, of unbridgeable distance that suddenly stood between us. I was different, and there was nothing to be done but watch the door swing slowly shut as she walked out.

The protagonist of Gemini Cell, James Schweitzer, is killed on an op-gone-wrong and brought back to life to continue serving his country. This new unlife gives him incredible, superhuman power, but even though he can run faster than a cheetah and punch through a cinderblock wall, Schweitzer is still dead, and the people he loves, the people he fought so hard to get back to are alive.

When I did my Big Idea post for Gemini Cell, I straight up owned the PTSD allegory. Schweitzer’s undead status kept him permanently apart from the living. He was among them, but not of them, anymore. The resultant isolation was pretty much the same thing many returning veterans feel.

In Javelin Rain, we see Schweitzer attempt to continue his relationship with his wife and son, to protect and nurture, to grapple with the this sudden shift that has made him different enough to be utterly alien, but similar enough to still kindle the feelings of love and loyalty that were always there. It is a scenario that many who return from war to their loved ones experience, struggling to find a new way forward in a relationship where all the goal posts have suddenly moved.

Will Schweitzer be able to do it? You’ll have to read to find out.

Life doesn’t like neat edges. The things that hurt us also buoy us up. Schweitzer’s heart doesn’t beat. His smile is little more than a rictus grin. He can’t share a meal, or warm a bed, or even share in the rigors of life that draw us closer to one another – aches and pains, aging, the need for sleep. Schweitzer’s new unlife has cost him dearly, that’s certain.

But I think about Schweitzer, about his magically enhanced strength and speed, his ability to hear a pin drop through a closed door, his unwavering core commitment to leaving the world better than he found it and putting these new abilities to serve in that glorious cause.

Schweitzer is changed, dramatically, irrevocably.

And so are we all.

Life won’t have it any other way.

—-

Javelin Rain: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Sam Sykes

For the record: I don’t own that particular hat. Other than that, everything Sam Sykes says about me in this Big Idea piece for his new novel The Mortal Tally is 100% accurate. Especially the part about the ventilation shafts.

SAM SYKES:

Aside from his immense popularity, staggering wealth and a super-cool hat that says “WORLD’S BEST CROATIAN GRANDDAD,” there’s been only one other thing that John Scalzi has that I really want.

The ability to be recognized as a threat to society.

So, I don’t know if you knew, but I have a new book coming out. It’s called The Mortal Tally, the second book in the Bring Down Heaven trilogy. It’s also my second trilogy I ever wrote, the first one being The Aeons’ Gate. Back when I was first starting out, I pored over every review I got, agonized over every criticism they gave me, ruined my mood for days whenever someone was slightly mean to me on the internet.

Eventually, I learned to ignore it. I learned that whatever people might have to say about my particular work was irrelevant next to the story I wanted to tell. I learned that trying to reconcile different perspectives from different criticisms was a futile effort and that neither were as important as me going forward and pouring all my heart and soul into my next work and that reading reviews would be detrimental to that.

I still hold that reading reviews is a waste of time.

And for a long time, I was very content to take my own advice.

Until it started.

I think it began with Joe Abercrombie, when he linked a negative review where someone actually set his book on fire because he feared that it would infect the world with nihilism. It’s continued through the years with authors who are routinely accredited with far-reaching motives to ruin society via the inclusion of gay characters, progressive plots or the suffusion of too many emotions in their writing.

Few people seem to get as much hate as John Scalzi. I can’t figure out why, since he’s mostly nice except for the times when he goes rummaging around in my ventilation shafts hoarding cheese. But I’ve seen people accuse him of everything from trying to ruin science fiction to actually cannibalizing science fiction authors to trying to destroy marriage.

Now, don’t get me wrong, fellows. I’m not a political guy. I don’t want to get into big arguments, to have my twitter feed filled with people trying to fight me over politics (I made a joke about Chicken McNuggets and Bernie Sanders that haunts me to this day), so I get it will sound a little hypocritical when I say this, but…

I want in.

I started perusing my own reviews again recently in hopes that someone had come out and proclaimed me to have been the doom of America. I was hoping someone would accuse me either of trying to ruin the moral fiber of the world or of having a shadowy agenda (leftist or rightist, I’m not picky, so long as I can be a bogeyman).

Nothing.

What I got was a few people complaining that I write emotional characters.

Which is kind of hard to deny. Or get mad about.

Though, in a way, it does strike me as kind of subversive to have characters that are overly emotional, angsty or even whiny. In the same way that I’m starting to view a lot of my work as kind of subversive for having slow pacing, not the greatest worldbuilding, and other stuff that we routinely grumble about in fantasy.

I’m not trying to slam on people who like quick pacing, fleshy worldbuilding and grim characters who don’t say a lot. Nor am I trying to suggest that fantasy is plagued with faux machismo and overly emotional characters are seen as an allergen to be purged.

Rather, I’m trying to say that we, somewhere along the line (probably around the time it became cool to accuse each other of trying to destroy things we love), lost our love of subversion.

Not the mechanical subversion that comes from such things as, say, subverting a trope so that dragons all run juice bars instead of hoards. We still love that. But rather, we started seeing subversion of mechanics as the only form of subversion. We support those subversions that occur in places that we are expecting subversion (that is, reimaginings on things we’ve already seen before), but become hesitant in subversions of things we weren’t expecting.

Sex in fantasy is pretty subversive. Not rape, there’s a lot of talk about that. But consensual, emotional, meaningful sex is pretty rare. The emotions that go into it and the way it raises the stakes of a relationship are often met with scoffing. Don’t believe me? Go look for reviews of popular fantasy books and see how many times the phrase “is the sex scene really necessary” comes up.

Mystery in fantasy is pretty subversive. Having things not totally planned out in advance, having things that can’t be explained by a mechanic, having problems that don’t have a clear solution are all met with some consternation from readers. I’ve read enough criticisms of an underdeveloped magic system to know.

And emotions are pretty subversive. We like motivations—the rage at seeing a loved one die, the sense of duty that comes from a long lineage—but emotions give us pause. We don’t like seeing characters who make bad decisions based on their emotions. We don’t like agonizing on emotions like whether our lovers are true or lying or whether we’re actually just lying to ourselves when we say we can do better. We like decisive action and possibly two lines afterward to reflect on the tragedy of it all.

Which is a shame, because The Mortal Tally has all those things and I’m super proud of them.

Now, I’m sure someone out there is gearing up to angrily refute all of this and offer a billion different examples of how it’s done—not you, though, gentle reader, you are precious and cuddly—and I welcome those.

And it might be thinking too highly of myself to be ascribing all these things I’ve done to subversion. It could just be that people don’t like these things at all and I’m putting out a conflict where none exists. It could just be that I like pushing at things and making things obnoxious and like to bust out grandiose explanations for them to explain away my own abrasiveness.

Or perhaps it could be that these things really do bring down societies and that’s why we don’t write about them as much.

In which case, I eagerly look forward to your review.

—-

The Mortal Tally: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Kate Forsyth

Fairy tales have the power to amaze and entrance, not only for the fantastical elements they carry, but for what of ourselves we can see within them. Author Kate Forsyth has an attachment a particular fairy tale, as the title of her non-fiction book The Rebirth of Rapunzel suggests, and it’s an attachment that has its roots in something that happened well before she could read the tale itself.

KATE FORSYTH:

Fairy tales have been with us for a very long time.

Ever since humans invented language, we have used those sounds laden with meaning to create stories – to teach, to warn, to entertain, and to effect change upon the world.

Those stories have been handed down through many generations – changing with each retelling, but still carrying within them the same wisdom and transformative power that has helped shape the human psyche.

And there’s no sign of fairy tales falling out of favour any time soon. They are everywhere in popular culture, inspiring TV shows and art installations, poems and advertising campaigns, fashion shows and ballets and comics and, most successfully of all, films.

I have been fascinated with fairy tales ever since I was first given a red leather-bound copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales when I was just seven years old. Of all the stories of beauty and peril and adventure within its pages, it was the story of ‘Rapunzel’ that resonated with me most powerfully.

To understand why, I need to take you far back into my own childhood.

When I was just two years old, a large black dog savagely attacked me. My delicate baby skull was pierced through, part of my ear was torn away, and my left tear-duct was destroyed. I survived meningitis and encephalitis, only to suffer a series of life-threatening infections and fevers brought about by the damage to my tear-duct.

I spent most of my childhood in and out of hospital, unable to stop my left eye from weeping, and unable to keep dirt and germs away from the delicate tissues of the eye and brain.

‘Rapunzel’ is a story of a girl locked away from the world against her will, who somehow finds the strength to escape and whose tears somehow have the power to heal the thorn-blinded eyes of her lover.

I have come to realise that the reason why ‘Rapunzel’ spoke to me so powerfully is because it gave me hope. I wanted to escape my metaphorical tower, I wanted my wounded eye to be healed.

This is what fairy tales do. They give us hope that we can somehow be saved, rescued, healed. Transformed in some way for the better. As we travel with the fairy tale protagonist through the dark and dangerous forest, as we suffer with them and triumph with them, we follow them back into the brightness of a world renewed. Fairy tales are an instruction manual for psychological healing.

As a child, I only knew the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale troubled me with questions. I first tried to answer some of those questions by retelling the tale when I was twelve (I didn’t get very far). I kept on trying, in one form or another, for a long time. Many of the dozens of books I have written have been crucially concerned with themes of imprisonment and escape, wounding and healing, sacrifice and redemption.

As I grew older, I began to study the history and meaning of fairy tales and my fascination became a fixation.

I decided two things.

The first was to retell the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale in the truest and most powerful way I could.

The second was to delve much deeper into fairy tale lore than ever before.

So I wrote a novel called Bitter Greens, a retelling of the ‘Rapunzel’ fairy tale that draws upon the dramatic true-life story of the woman who told the tale as it is best known – the 17th century French writer Charlotte-Rose de la Force. It moves from the glittering court of the Sun King in 17th century France to Venice in the 16th century, braiding together the life stories of three women – the maiden, the witch, and the teller of the tale.  Bitter Greens hit a chord. It has sold more than a quarter of a million copies worldwide and won the American Library Association award for Best Historical Novel.

I wrote Bitter Greens as the creative component of a Doctorate of Creative Arts. For my theoretical component, I researched and wrote a mythic biography of the Maiden in the Tower tale, tracing the story’s changing history as far back as we have recorded history of myths and legends and folk tales and – perhaps – even further, back to the very beginning of human storytelling. I also looked at the life of the tale beyond the stories of De La Force and the Grimms, through the poetry of William Morris and Anne Sexton, the stories and novels of Edith Nesbit, Donna Jo Napoli, and Shannon Hale, all the way through to Disney and Tangled.

What I sought to discover is why fairy tales like ‘Rapunzel’ have survived for so long, and why we still need them.

What I discovered is that fairy tales are not just for children. They are for all humans, having the power to help us change not only ourselves but, indeed, the whole world.

—-

The Rebirth of Rapunzel: Amazon|Book Repository|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

His was one of the first intelligences behind the concept of artificial intelligence, and yet Alan Turing is defined not only by what he said on the topic, but also by what he never got the chance to say. Jim Ottaviani, author of the graphic novel The Imitation Game (Leland Purvis, illustrator), graces this site today to share more.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Elon Musk calls it “our greatest existential threat.” Bill Gates says “I agree with Elon…and don’t understand why some people are not concerned.” And Stephen Hawking, who cosigned a letter about it with Musk, Gates, and others said this in a Reddit AMA: “We should shift the goal of AI from creating pure undirected artificial intelligence to creating beneficial intelligence. It might take decades to figure out how to do this, so let’s start researching this today rather than the night before the first strong AI is switched on.”

What about the guy who came up with the gold standard test for determining whether a machine could think? What would Alan Turing say about AI? Quite a lot, it turns out, almost all of it quotable and said many years before Gates—much less Musk—was born. (For his part, when Turing was writing about this Hawking was an 8 year old climbing out the windows of the new family home in St. Albans to get away from his sisters.)

He said most of it in a 1950 paper called “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” published in the philosophy journal MIND, back when a philosophical paper might change the way computer scientists think, and might even read stuff that wasn’t in computer science journals. Admittedly, that’s mostly because there were no computer scientists besides Turing, Johnny von Neumann, and a few of their respective protégés, nor were there journals for them.

He said his piece in what storytellers might call his third act. Turing’s first act came in his early twenties, when he successfully tackling the famous “decision problem,” or Entscheidungsproblem posed by David Hilbert. Another mathematician, Alonzo Church, also solved it independently and somewhat traditionally; straight up math, with techniques you’ll remember (probably with no joy) from your high school geometry class.

Turing? He solved it by inventing the modern computer in the abstract, then programming it and running it in his head. Nice work. Enough to make you famous for creating the Universal Turing Machine, a fame that will last until our computer overlords rewrite history to get rid of the human role in their invention.

So what do you do in your thirties, for your second act? How about playing a key role—arguably the key role—in breaking the German Enigma code during World War II, work that saved countless lives and accelerated the Allied defeat of the Nazis. And maybe designing an honest-to-goodness mechanical computer to do it?

Done and done.

The Turing Test for artificial intelligence was the culmination of his third act. If you don’t know what it is—not likely here on John’s blog—it’s…well, sorry. I’ll say no more about that because it’s the lynchpin of our narrative.

We don’t get to know about his fourth act, and that’s the big idea at the heart of our book. Turing was thoroughly modern in so many ways: a mathematical genius, the inventor of modern computers, an expert in encryption, and, as it happens, open about his sexuality in a time when that just wasn’t done. But he died over sixty years ago, his life cut short because a foolish and ignorant society (it’s not completely fair to call it ungrateful, since Turing’s code-breaking work was kept secret until the 1970s, and at that time computers weren’t part of daily life for people like you and me) allowed him to be arrested and convicted for the crime of being gay. Yes, it was a crime in 1950s England, and might as well have been in most other places in the world. The consequences of this were miserable for Turing, and by the time you finish our Imitation Game, I hope you’ll agree that they weren’t good for the rest of us as either.

As I said before, the game itself plays an important role in our graphic novel, so I’m glad Abrams liked our title as much as Leland and I did. And I think Turing would have appreciated it too, to the extent he’d notice. I suspect he would have been proud but perplexed by a biography, and only mildly interested in it. He’d have much rather told you about this new theory he was working on, or a science fiction story he was finishing up, or…

I can’t even imagine what else that might be, but I do know for certain that the world would have benefited—and been much more interesting—if we’d had decades more of him thinking, discovering, and stretching the boundaries of intelligence.

—-

The Imitation Game: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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