The Big Idea: Curtis C. Chen

Hey! Curtis C. Chen is a former student of mine! And now he has his debut novel, Waypoint Kangaroo! Naturally I take all credit for his success. Now, pay attention while Curtis tells you about his book.

CURTIS C. CHEN:

My debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo exists because of a robot cat from the future. Lemme ‘splain.

Though I grew up in the United States, I was born in Taiwan, and my late paternal grandfather owned a bookshop, so as a young child I had access to a variety of reading materials. One of the book series I discovered and fell in love with as a child was Doraemon, a popular Japanese manga that had been translated into Chinese. It was probably also my first contact with science fiction in book form, and it influenced me pretty deeply.

Oddly enough, Doraemon is still virtually unknown in the Western hemisphere, despite enjoying immense popularity all across Asia since his introduction in 1969–he’s even been called “the Mickey Mouse of Japan.” The good news is, US residents can now watch episodes of the 2005 Doraemon anime on the cable channel Disney XD, where he’s billed as a “Gadget Cat from the Future.”

I won’t get into Doraemon’s backstory here (you can read about that at doraemon.com). The important thing is that Doraemon keeps all his futuristic gadgets in a “4th Dimensional Secret Gadget Pocket,” a pouch built into his belly–and that was the inspiration for my character Kangaroo’s superpower, which he simply calls “the pocket.”

However, since my goal was to write a spy novel for grown-ups, not a comic strip targeted at pre-teen children, I wanted to be more rigorous in terms of how Kangaroo’s pocket works and what its limitations are. I wanted his superpower to be internally consistent and to generally adhere to the laws of physics as we understand them today.

I also didn’t want the pocket to be useful in every situation, which meant coming up with very clear rules for when and how Kangaroo could use it. My friends and fellow writers helped me think through those issues by asking many questions of the “Can he do X? What if he does Y? Why wouldn’t he do Z?” variety.

Here are the basics of what I came up with:

  • Kangaroo can open portals to an empty “pocket universe” which is apparently infinite, making it the perfect place to hide just about anything.
  • But that other universe looks like deep space–no air, no light, no heat–so Kangaroo usually opens the pocket with an optional force-field barrier over the portal, to keep the atmosphere from our universe from escaping into the other one. (The barrier is permeable enough that he can push his arm through to deposit or withdraw items.)
  • Kangaroo can only open the pocket in midair, not inside solid objects or liquids, and therefore the portal can only ever be as large as the empty space around him.
  • The portal must always face toward Kangaroo. He can rotate the portal around the object inside, but only by exactly 180 degrees. (This one is a bit tricky to describe; there’s a longer explanation of “Project Backdoor” early in the novel.)
  • Once a portal is open, it’s locked to Kangaroo’s position in space–i.e., if he turns his head, it moves with him.
  • Last but not least, using the pocket gives Kangaroo a “pocket hangover” roughly proportional to how many portals he’s pulled recently and how large each one has been.

Once I had a general idea of what Kangaroo could and couldn’t do with the pocket, I started thinking about “edge cases.” How do I set up situations where the pocket is the only or best way to solve a certain problem, but it’s going to be a challenge for Kangaro to use it in that particular way? And given that he’s not so great at all the other spy stuff–his bosses really only want to use him as a courier–what does he do when things go sideways in the field, and he can’t use the pocket at all for some reason?

I hope you have as much fun reading about Kangaroo’s adventures as I did making them up. And if you don’t see your favorite “stupid pocket trick” in Waypoint Kangaroo, don’t panic–book two is coming soon!

—-

Waypoint Kangaroo: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Yoon Ha Lee

Within the novel Ninefox Gambit is a battle of wits between two very accomplished characters — and making that struggle work was no small task for author Yoon Ha Lee. What’s the secret? Read on!

YOON HA LEE:

Once upon a time, as a young, impressionable Yoon, my boyfriend-now-husband introduced me to BattleTech. One of the parts that fascinated me about BattleTech’s backstory was the bit where the well-respected Genereal Aleksandr Kerensky was so disgusted with his regime that he and six million followers abandoned the Star League to found their own nation. I was impressed by how charismatic Kerensky would have had to be to pull this off.

Fast forward some years, after I’d decided to write a space opera, as one does. I’d been nosing about the TV Tropes website, specifically my favorite pages, Moral Event Horizon, Chessmaster, and Magnificent Bastard. What if I ran Kerensky backwards, I wondered? Take a charismatic, brilliant general–and instead of him being so well-respected that he could secede from an interstellar nation and take six million people with him, make him feared and reviled. Say that he massacred a million people at his last battle: civilians, the enemy army, and his *own* army.  (How’s that for a Moral Event Horizon?) He’s been preserved as an undead tactician for four centuries because he was just that good, and because they think they’ve tamed him–even though no one *still* knows why he did what he did, or if he just went mad and might do so again.

Ta-da! I had my antagonist, General Shuos Jedao.

And then imagine an infantry captain in her mid-twenties with Jedao as her advisor, trying to make use of him in a hardfought space siege while ensuring that he doesn’t betray her and everything she stands for. My protagonist, Kel Cheris, is smart–even brilliant in her own way–but Jedao may be deadlier than all the enemy soldiers she faces.

Sure, I was going to have battle scenes and bloodthirsty science fantasy weapons and so on, but I knew the most important thing would be selling the tense relationship between Jedao and Cheris. From the beginning I constructed them as complements. Jedao is extroverted, persuasive, intuitive, devious.  So Cheris is introverted, self-contained, calculating, honest.  So far, so good?

Not so fast. Both of them were also supposed to be geniuses: Jedao at tactics and psychological warfare, Cheris at math. It’s possible that writing geniuses is easy when one is a genius oneself; I wouldn’t know, because I’m definitely not a genius. (I have since sworn that maybe the next thing I should do is write slapstick comedy about stupid-ass generals, not brilliant tacticians.)

So I cheated.  A lot. One of the first things I did was to reread James Dunnigan & Albert A. Nofi’s Victory and Deceit: Dirty Tricks at War. I wrote down all the stratagems I liked, then tried to shove all of them into the rough draft. (And then there was too much plot so I had to take some of them out.)  And of course, their opponent also had to be smart. I’d learned this from reading Gordon R. Dickson’s Tactics of Mistake, a novel I found infuriating because the “tactical genius” mainly geniused by virtue of the opponent being stupid, which I’m sure happens all the time in real life but makes for unsatisfying narrative. Besides all the military reading I did, I also hit up social engineering and security engineering.

But I still wasn’t done. I had to sell Cheris and Jedao as characters. Characterization has always been the part of writing that I find the most difficult. I also had to portray both characters in such a way that Cheris, while outmatched, wouldn’t be totally overwhelmed. I wanted her to be the underdog, but not to have no chance whatsoever! So part of writing her involved setting up her arc so that she grew into a true ally/opponent.

The other thing that gave me difficulty when writing Cheris is that she’s a woman, and I had to be in her head for large chunks of the novel. I’m trans, identifying as male, and while I try to make a point of writing female POVs in my short fiction, it’s not without its cost. Growing up, I got caught writing trans protagonists in my fiction in middle school, and my teacher notified my mother. This was before I had any vocabulary for this stuff, but when my mother made a concerted effort to shove me into skirts and dresses and get me to behave in more conventionally “feminine” ways, I had a hard time dealing. It wasn’t until much later that I felt comfortable coming out even to people very close to me. Even today, spending extended periods of time writing a female POV is painful not because women are evil–I have a twelve-year-old daughter and I would very much like for her to grow up in a world where she has all sorts of great female role models, fictional and real–but because of my own baggage. Writing male POVs is the only place in my life where I get to “be” male, and it’s hard to give that up. So part of writing Cheris involved working through that.

Jedao was a challenge for a different reason. He’s undead, and part of the complication is that he has no body; he pretty much exists as a disembodied voice. So (with a few exceptions) I couldn’t rely on body language, or facial expressions, or any of that. Everything had to come through on the strength of the dialogue. The good part was that Jedao was an astonishingly cooperative, talkative character and I got a clear sense of his personality pretty quickly. The scary part was that once he got going he wouldn’t shut up. And as Cheris discovers, Jedao may be a mass murderer, but that doesn’t automatically mean that his critiques of their government are automatically wrong.

I don’t know if I succeeded in writing a chessmaster (or two, or three), let alone a Magnificent Bastard, but at least the attempt was fun! You’ll have to let me know how I did.

—-

Ninefox Gambit: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|iBook|Rebellion Store

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

The Big Idea: Laura Lam

Book ideas can come from anywhere — but the time they take to get to an author can, well, vary. In the Big Idea for her novel False Hearts, author Laura Lam traces the path of the idea that became to dual hearts of her story.

LAURA LAM:

Sometimes book ideas hit you in a sudden burst of inspiration. You want to yell “Eureka!” even if you’re at your desk in your day job, or in the middle of the aisle while shopping for food. All the pieces tumble into place and you have a plotted book sitting in your head within a couple of hours or a few days. Other times, it seems to come in frustratingly small dribs and drabs: you love this premise or this idea for a character, but you don’t yet know how to work it into a plot and what world it should take place in, so it ends up percolating for a while before finally coalescing into something you can work with.

False Hearts was more the second process. I had the Eureka premise hit me clear on the side of the head and I was really excited by it, but then the idea had to marinate a little. I can pinpoint to the exact moment I had the idea; it was lunchtime on February 25, 2013, less than a month after my first book, Pantomime, had been released. I’d finished the sequel, Shadowplay, and I was slowly working on the third book, Masquerade, even though it didn’t yet have a contract. I figured I should work on something else, too, just in case.  This proved to be a good move, as the imprint of the publisher that released my first books folded a few months later.

That lunchtime, I read this article on io9 by Annalee Newitz about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton. Daisy and Violet were conjoined at the hip and famous on the vaudeville circuit. They were sadly treated badly by their family and various managers, and their lives were a series of ups and downs. When vaudeville started winding down, they ended up moving into cinema. The article had a clip from Chained for Life, where both twins have to go on trial for a murder one of them committed.

Wham. Book idea: what if your literal other half was accused of murder, and you weren’t entirely sure whether or not they’d done it? How far would you go to find out the truth?

I have identical twin nephews and see how close they are. They fight, sure, but at the end of the day, they are inseparable. I started researching conjoined twins, watching interviews, documentaries, and reading a lot of nonfic. But it took a while to figure out what I should actually do with that idea—what genre, where it should be set, how everything was going to actually fit. In little dribs and drabs, it came together. With each new snippet, I did more research (subjects included futuristic architecture, possible medical advancements, how mobs work, how cults work, neuroscience, how drugs and dreams affect the brain). In the end, I wrote a thriller set in near-future San Francisco. I grew up in the Bay Area, but moved to Scotland when I was 21, so it was a nice excuse to go home in my imagination for a while.

The San Francisco of False Hearts looks like a utopia at first glance. Poverty is all but erased. There aren’t any major world-scale wars. Health care is free and advanced. Crime seems a thing of the past. The SF bay glows green at night from the algae they farm to bolster the food supply, along with orchard skyscrapers and vat-grown meat. Everyone has ocular and auditory implants, streaming information directly into their cortex. When pent up emotions grow overwhelming, people go to one of the many Zeal Lounges throughout the city, plugging into the drug that lets you exorcise your dark desires in dreams. They come out of the trip refreshed and soporific. A little more tractable. A little easier to control.

The twins in False Hearts, Taema and Tila, were born conjoined at the chest in a cult set where Muir Woods is now. This cult, Mana’s Hearth, has been completely cut off from modern technology, and they essentially live like 1969 summer of love hippies. Like many cults, there’s a sinister undertone. Changing yourself in anyway is considered sacrilege—if you’re ill, you can use some rudimentary herbs, but otherwise you must bow to the will of the Creator.

At sixteen, when their shared heart starts to fail, Taema and Tila do not bow. They run.

In San Francisco, there is a pressure to fit into the narrow confines of what society considers perfection. Thanks to gene therapy and walk-in flesh parlours, people rarely let themselves age. Society has no idea what to do with conjoined twins, and, though the twins don’t really want to, they are pressured into being separated and fitted with mechanical hearts. Over the next ten years, the sisters subtly drift apart.

Then, one night, Tila stumbles into Taema’s house, covered in someone else’s blood. She’s arrested by the first murder from a civilian in decades. It’s all kept out of the papers, and soon Taema is given a proposal: they think her sister was involved with the Ratel, the underground mob of San Francisco that deal in a dangerous new dream drug called Verve. If Taema takes her sister’s identity and works with an undercover detective and finds out what’s going on in the Ratel, then SFPD might let her sister live rather than being thrown into stasis for her crimes.

Taema can’t stand that her sister has kept such a big secret from her. It eats at her. So she follows her sister into the dark underbelly of San Francisco, and ends up realising they didn’t leave their past as far behind as they’d hoped. At first, Taema is sure that her sister was not capable of murder. The father she falls down the rabbit hole, the less sure she is: and if Taema’s sister is capable of murder, what does that say about her?

—-

False Hearts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bryon Quertermous

Sometimes you get what you ask for. What then? It’s a question both for Bryon Quertermous and Dominick Prince, the protagonist of his new novel, Riot Load. Quertermous is here to go into slightly more detail about it.

BRYON QUERTERMOUS:

Very rarely am I able to capture the entire Big Idea of a book in the opening sentence, but for my current book, Riot Load, it happened like this:

I was two hours into my thirty-minute lunch break and taking in a baseball game on a stuffy mid-July day in Detroit when it occurred to me that getting everything I ever wanted was the worst thing that could have happened to me.

I finished my first novel when I was 24 and was immediately ready for literary fame and riches to descend upon me. It didn’t matter that I had already blown a number of great opportunities in my life; I was certain I was ready. Luckily for all involved I was the only one who thought that and it took another 13 years for me to sell my first novel.

By that point I was married, had two kids, a stable job, and a decade worth of experiences and connections to draw upon. I genuinely was ready. Had I been published at 24 with that book and tried to write a Big Idea essay then, it almost certainly would have declared myself the voice of my generation and would have been insufferable to a weaponized degree.

Dominick Prince, the main character in Riot Load, is not so lucky.  He was given a book contract and a lot of money before he was ready as a writer and well before he was ready as a person. When I started writing this book, I tried to put myself in his place and figure out what I would have done with more money than common sense and no direction in my life because the one single thing I had been striving for already happened. The answer of course is nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

That doesn’t make for a very good book though so I gave him one more dream he had been harboring: a marriage to his college crush. That’s when things really got going and I found myself working out a lot of issues of my own through Dominick’s adventures. The novel grew out of a short story I wrote years ago about a sperm bank robbery. The story itself was disgusting and when I pitched the idea to my publisher he was rightly concerned about the market potential of a disgusting book. But as I sold him on a new interpretation of the idea, I was also selling myself on it. A sperm bank robbery turned out to be a great forum to talk about my parenting fears and the weight of legacies humans have a tendency to saddle themselves with.

I did not take to being a parent easily. I was selfish and bitter and all-together insufferable about the whole thing. It wasn’t until my third kid I finally grew the hell up and stopped whining about it. But as I was writing about fatherhood with this book and weaving in this idea of having dreams come true too early I found myself also writing a lot about the idea of tying one’s identity to what they do.

Dominick achieved in a year everything he’d hoped to spend a lifetime pursuing and with that he lost who he was as a person. But with a new wife and an impending child he finds himself with the opportunity to recreate himself as a husband and as a father. He’s just as bad at it as I was, but he also has to deal with his wife being a bounty hunter and her family being in the middle of a struggle for control of their fading criminal empire. I had to deal with losing my dream job.

I’d been an editor for almost as long as I’d been a writer and those two pursuits made up the core of my identity so it was no surprise to me that in the space of three months I was hired to run the new crime fiction imprint of a respected publisher and then sold my first novel. I had absolutely no conflict in my life. I was enjoying two great careers, I had an amazing marriage and I was settling in and finally enjoying being a parent. That made the early writing of this book very hard.

The fates took pity on me though and ripped the job away from me after seven months sending me into a spiral of self-pity and anger. Suddenly I had no problem writing, but everything I wrote came out angry. I’m not an angry person I told myself. I’m easy going and optimistic.  But it turned out Dominick was very angry. While I wasn’t looking this character I had created as an avatar for my wasted years had become his own person independent of the autobiographical traits I had created him with.

And he was exactly the right character for me to be writing at that time.

What happens when you achieve your dreams too early? You find new dreams. The same is true if you fail to achieve a dream. Or if your dream morphs into something else. How a dream is achieved is as an important to the identity of a character, or of a real life person, as the dream itself. I’m lucky the pursuit of my dreams has led to success and failure in equal doses on a time frame that I’ve been able to handle. Dominick Prince has not been as lucky.

But his story is far more interesting to read about.

—-

Riot Load: Amazon.com|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Books-A-Million

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

 

The Big Idea: Adam Rakunas

We’re all connected — although perhaps not to the extreme the people in Adam Rakunas‘ new book Like a Boss are. In this Big Idea, Rakunas muses on the costs and benefits of connection… especially if someone wants to disconnect.

ADAM RAKUNAS:

Three years ago, Paul Graham Raven posted a link to an essay by Venkatesh Rao, and it broke me. Rao’s thesis in The American cloud is that the everyday experiences of our lives are dependent on distant industrial-scale processes that might as well be high up in the sky. Flip a light switch, eat an apple, read a book: all of these are the end points of vast networks of raw materials passing through the hands of many, many people until they get to you.

What would happen if they all went on strike?

For the people of Santee Anchorage, the world of Like a Boss, it would be catastrophic. The little agricultural world is an Information Age outpost on the edge of Super Duper Future society. All of the supply lines are so compressed and interdependent that if one person quits, everything collapses overnight. If the woman who runs the local metal fabrication shop closes up, then the delivery company that depends on her parts will have to close when their carburetors fail, which means that the farmers won’t be able to bring their eggplants to town in time for the Baba Ganoush Festival, which means the family that just opened a pita bread bakery will have a pile of rotting product, which means the neighborhood garbage digester will overfill, which means a sudden increase in the rat population, which means a sudden uptick in ratborne meningitis, which brings the already-stretched medical system to its knees, et cetera.

And that’s just one shop. Imagine everyone walking out.

Padma Mehta, the book’s two-fisted labor organizing heroine, knows that there’s a time and place for a strike, and right now is neither. Santee Anchorage is still recovering from the economic disaster of having its space elevator blown up (by Padma, a fact that everyone is more than happy to remind her every chance they get), and, even though the new elevator has been up and running for the past eight months, people are still on edge. The medicine and technology that the citizenry gets in exchange for its industrial sugarcane is running low, and any disruptions to the local economy will empty those stocks.

Padma’s been too busy digging her way out of debt to want to do anything about it, though. She’s got what she’s always wanted: retirement from her gig as a Union recruiter, ownership of the Old Windswept Rum Distillery, and a life free of people bringing their troubles to her and expecting her to Do Something About it. She did that for long enough, and where did it get her? On the hook for blowing up the space elevator, that’s what. If the Union can’t do anything about fixing Santee’s current mess, then why should she bother?

Because it will get her out of debt, of course. That’s the deal the Union President offers if Padma can head off the looming strike. Everyone’s pissed off, everyone want someone to Do Something About It, and Padma’s just the person with the knowledge, the charm, and the ready right hook to get it done. Will she stop the strike in time?

No. Oh, God, no. Not even close. But you’ll have a hell of a time finding out how.

—-

Like a Boss: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s|Mysterious Galaxy|Elliott Bay Book Company|Kobo

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

Mehta’s former employer.

The Big Idea: Shannon Page

My personal path to publication, in terms of novel writing, was to post my novel on this blog, where it was read by an editor, who made me an offer. Is this the usual way it’s done? No. But is it wholly unusual? Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of ways to be published. Editor Shannon Page has assembled some of these way in her non-fiction anthology The Usual Path to Publication.

SHANNON PAGE:

I love writing workshops. I mean, sure, the internet is great and all, but the way I really learned about how the writing world works—not to mention how I made every writer friend I have—was by going to workshops, as well as their close cousins, conventions. Putting myself out there where lots of writers congregate, to talk about writing stuff, and everything else.

(I even met my husband at a writing convention. But that’s a different Big Idea.)

Imagine my thrill when I “graduated” from attending workshops to being asked to instruct at workshops. I will be the first to admit that I still have plenty to learn about the craft of writing; and as far as the business goes, I have quite obviously not become a household name, nor made even a small fortune. Even so, it was very encouraging to realize that I have learned a thing or two which newer writers might find useful. It’s a joy and an honor to be able to share that knowledge.

Last summer, I was an instructor at the Cascade Writers Workshop, a Milford-style small-group workshop. Cascade is a wonderful group of people dedicated to bringing writers together, giving newer writers a hand up, welcoming everyone into this great community. At one point during the workshop, all the instructors were gathered together in an open panel where the participants could ask us anything. One intrepid audience member raised their hand with a question about the “usual path to publication.”

It grieves me a bit to admit that we all laughed. In our defense, it was nervous laughter, startled laughter, uncomfortable laughter. And then we proceeded to seriously tackle this frankly impossible question. We spoke about the fact that there are as many answers to that as there are published authors. We told our own stories, both in that panel and for the rest of the weekend.

At some point, I realized, This would make a great anthology.

I shrugged it off at first. I had (still have!) too many projects on my plate already. But the idea wouldn’t let go. I talked to a few people about it. Tor editor Claire Eddy, another of the instructors, told me, “That’s a great idea. I’d buy that book. Everyone would buy that book.” By the end of the workshop, I’d decided to go for it. And this project was born.

Over the next few months, I put out a call to as many authors as I could get hold of, asking them for their unusual, amusing, inspirational, bizarre, even dreadful tales of how they actually got published. And, amazingly, so many of them responded. I got a little shiver of delight every time I opened my email to find another submission. The stories are great—charming, funny, painful, inspirational. There are missed connections, dead agents and editors, serendipity, technology woes, ignored advice, and deeply altered expectations. Most of all, there is persistence. If one thread unites all the essays I gathered, it is that these are people who did not give up.

As I began compiling the essays into a book, a second thread became clear: breaking in is only the start of the adventure. As the publishing landscape continues to change, seemingly faster all the time, once-comfortably established writers are having to adapt, often dramatically. Series get canceled, publishing houses merge or vanish altogether, agents and editors quit the business or move to other houses.

And then there is the bold (and terrifying, and exciting) new world of self-publishing. A few of my authors have dabbled there; one has jumped in all the way, and is doing far better than she had imagined possible. If there is ever a Usual Path to Publication Volume II, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find it brimming with successful self-published writers.

This is not a how-to book. It’s a how-this-person-and-that-person-and-the-other-person-did-it book, twenty-seven times over. Coincidence and luck and timing and the random forces of nature run strong in these stories. I hope readers find them as enjoyable, entertaining, and inspirational as I do!

—-

The Usual Path to Publication: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Book View Cafe|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Na’amen Gobert Tilahun

For today’s Big Idea, Na’amen Gobert Tilahun looked at how people like him are imagined to be, and for his novel The Root, how to make positive the qualities that are often perceived by others to be negatives.

NA’AMEN GOBERT TILAHUN:

A lot of the plot ideas in The Root are actually smaller ideas that become bigger and more expansive in the second and third books of the trilogy. Some deal with family or religion or betrayal or all three. I was struggling to decide which to talk about when I realized that with most of them it would difficult if not impossible to avoid spoilers. So I thought back to the ideas that got me writing The Root in the first place, the two ideas I thought were small and the idea that joined them together. In The Root many of the characters get a few scenes from their point of view, but the two main characters are definitely Errikos Sabastian Allan and Lilliana Blackthorn Johns, or Erik and Lil for short. Both of them started as a bare sketch, a broad idea for a character in response to something.

I’ve been a large black man all of my life and I’ve experienced the fear and suspicion that comes along with that. I’ve had people clutch their bags at the sight of me, tell me seats were taken when they were later given away, even cross the street to get away from me. These are just a few of the assumptions of anger and violence that I experience every single day. One day I thought: What if I wrote a black man whose power came from his anger? What if that angry black man was one of the heroes of the story? What if that angry black man was shown to be so much more than his anger? What if he was allowed to be smart and noble and vulnerable and all the things a hero should be? What would that character look like?

For me, it turned out to look like Erik. Writing him proved difficult because we have so much of the experience of a black man in America in common,, but in other aspects we are completely different. I often found myself having to go back and correct the story so that he would act in a way that was about what Erik would do in that situation, not what I would do. I hadn’t anticipated this problem but I should have, because not only was I crafting a character similar to me but also the kind of character I wanted to see more of as a reader. I also had to resist the urge to make him the perfect hero, because I had been so in need of characters like this. I wanted him to be everything to everyone which is impossible. I had to remember I didn’t want an idealized protagonist, I wanted a real one who was nuanced and could allow people to see him as a fully human person, deserving of all the respect that entails.

I’ve never been a black woman but I have spent most of my life around them as mothers, sisters, friends and cousins, as family who I loved and cared for and an intrinsic part of my community. I’ve also seen them called loud, obnoxious, ugly, stupid and far darker things. Black woman are not respected by our society at all, I’ve watched what we say they are in our media, how we erase them from history, how we ignore the things they contribute to society. And I thought: What if the black woman’s very power lay in her voice? What if you could not silence her no matter what? What if by voice I didn’t just focus on physical voice but also on the way she walked in the world, the things she thought were right, and would not be silent about? What if what she wanted more than anything was the truth? What would she do for it?

And so Lil was born. Writing Lil was challenging for different reasons than Erik. Unlike Erik, when the book opens she still has some bit of innocence left, she clings to her belief in certain people. I knew the first book was going to be a hard road for her because seeing someone lose that belief?

It’s rough.

Both of my characters would have hard journeys because they were trying to save two worlds and that’s no easy task. However, Lil’s story had to be even more nuanced than Erik’s because of my lack of personal experience with that identity. I wanted to show the way she’s dismissed as so many women of color are, her intentions misconstrued, her protestations ignored. I wanted to show Lil’s strength, not some mythical black woman strength that meant she didn’t get hurt or could take more punishment because of her black womanhood, but the strength in knowing what she was doing was right. I had to show this without slipping into any of the tropes and horrors that follow the depictions of black women in our society. I didn’t want Lil’s story or pain to feel exotified of exploitative and the stories told and revered in our society encourage us to use women’s pain as window dressing, as something to spice up a tale. Luckily I have my friends to look to, all the black women in my life that counter this message simply by existing and telling their own stories.

Once I had the ideas for both of these characters the rest of the story began to grow out from them. I didn’t have everything worked out yet but I knew that these two characters, all too rare in speculative fiction for being black and queer and three-dimensional, would be the center of the story I was telling. Then around these two ideas/characters developed another big idea like some delicious flaky crust. These two characters, these reactions to real life stereotypes could and would exist between the covers of an adventurous, fantasy story that was not solely focused on their identity.

Maybe that’s why at first I didn’t think of these things as big ideas. First because it was born of all these smaller ideas coming together to form a story and secondly it’s what I’ve always wanted to write. For Lil and Erik, their pasts affect them and influence their decisions as with any good character, but their identities, the colors of their skin, their sexualities are not all that they are by any means. I wanted to see people like me and my friends concerned with surviving, with fighting bad guys, with saving the world, with falling in love, with living through an urban fantasy landscape that all too often didn’t look urban at all.

I sometimes still hesitate to call that a Big Idea because it seems so obvious to me but from a lot of the reactions I’ve gotten – the anger AND the thankfulness it seems like it’s more of a big idea than I ever thought.

—-

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

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

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.

—-

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.

—-

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.

—-

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.

—-

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.

—-

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.

—-

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‘.

—-

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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