Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Sarah Lotz

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

SARAH LOTZ:

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

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

I know: So. Many. Questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Steven S. Drachman

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

STEVEN DRACHMAN:

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

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

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

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

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

Thus:

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

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

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

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

When did humanity itself jump the shark?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all still wait for the past.

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Monica Byrne

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

MONICA BYRNE:

Was my life worth continuing after trauma?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, the choice to exit early does exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Will McIntosh

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

WILL McINTOSH:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us full circle, back to the Luyten.

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

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

ROSE FOX AND DANIEL JOSÉ OLDER:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Long Hidden: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Createspace

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

The Big Idea: Stephanie Saulter

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

STEPHANIE SAULTER:

What makes us human?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Idea: Jeff VanderMeer

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

JEFF VANDERMEER:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With or without thousands of white rabbits—and hauntings.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Nick Mamatas

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

NICK MAMATAS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course not, no.”

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

“Yes, that’s it!”

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Melanie Rawn

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

MELANIE RAWN:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                   I live in hotels, tear out the walls

                   I have accountants pay for it all…

                   I have a limo, ride in the trunk

                   I lock the doors in case I get drunk…

                   It’s tough to handle this fortune and fame

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

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

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

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

So far.

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

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

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

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

MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL:

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

The way I got there was slightly more complicated though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With gondola chases. And magic.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Daryl Gregory

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

DARYL GREGORY:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

Afterparty: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundPowell’s

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

The Big Idea: A.J. Larrieu

Things have a cost. You buy a coffee, you pay the price for it. You stay up all night drinking, you pay for it with a hangover. But what cost comes from using magic — and how do you pay the price? A.J Larrieu is here to tell you how tallied the cost for her novel Twisted Miracles — and how that price affects her story.

A.J. LARRIEU:

I’ve always been drawn to speculative fiction that requires power to have a price. The price can come in different forms, but without it, the world just won’t feel real. In the Harry Potter books, one price of power is the training witches and wizards need to harness their innate abilities. In the Game of Thrones series, no one gets away without paying the “iron price,” and often paying more than they owe. Giving power a price creates natural balance in a fictional universe—and it makes things a lot more interesting.

The world of my debut novel, Twisted Miracles, is populated by shadowminds, humans with supernatural mental powers. They aren’t strictly telekinetic—they’re actually energy converters, able to use their minds to create motion, light or heat. This makes for some fascinating possibilities, but I knew I couldn’t let their powers be limitless. To make their gifts feel real, I had to understand how they worked. Not on a detailed level—it’s made-up magic, after all—but in a practical way. What’s possible, and what’s not?

I’m a scientist by training, so I began with one of the most fundamental, unbreakable laws of the universe, the First Law of Thermodynamics. It’s a famous one—simply put, it states that energy cannot be created or destroyed. As I move my fingers to type this post, I’m using energy I banked this morning in the form of peanut butter on toast and some disappointing strawberries.

I wanted the same general rule to apply to my converters. They can lift things with their minds, sure, but they can’t go around tossing SUVs like used tissues. If they don’t have the power to do it with their hands, they don’t have the power to do it with their brains. They have limits.

Of course, some of them can go beyond those limits. My heroine, Cass, can lift anything she wants, no matter how heavy, but that energy still has to come from somewhere. If she can’t find it in herself, her gift goes looking for it somewhere else, and the cost of stealing energy isn’t always one she’s prepared to pay.

It was this cost that led me to the thematic core of the story, the one I didn’t know about when I started writing. As it turns out, the big idea behind Twisted Miracles is a question: What are the limits of forgiveness? Cass’s dangerous gift has led her to do terrible things, some of them by accident, some of them not. Over the course of the story, she’s forced to make soul-rending choices about the price she’s willing to pay for justice. In the end, Cass’s journey is about learning how to live with her personal tab of decisions and mistakes—and learning that forgiveness might be the one thing in life without a price.

—-

Twisted Miracles: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google|iBooks|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Two things you need to know for today’s Big Idea: One, Elizabeth Bear is one of this generation’s best science fiction and fantasy authors, and Steles of the Sky is the latest in her acclaimed Eternal Sky series; Two, there’s a really big and awesome announcement in this Big Idea. Okay? Here you go, then:

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

So there’s this guy, right? And he’s the youngest son of a branch of the royal family, but his older brother, the heir-apparent, is killed in battle with another branch of the line, and he nearly dies himself–

Oh.

Hmm.

…okay, I’m yanking your chain. That’s not the Big Idea here. That all actually happened before the beginning of the first book, Range of Ghosts, which I Big Ideaed about here.

Yes, it’s a pretty traditional setup. But I just might have gotten lucky and done something interesting with it this time.

Today, though–today I’m here to talk about the third and final book in the trilogy*, Steles of the Sky, which releases today.

The Big Idea here is… well, there are a lot of them. Humanoid tigers with an esoteric religion; occasional megafauna (possibly the name of our illustrious host’s next band); the unreliability of history (which is generally being written by a lot of different people with different agendas over the course of centuries); all the things women actually did in the premodern era…

Wait. Let’s talk about those last two things.

Every so often we hear the excuse that women have no place in epic fantasy stories because medieval women didn’t actually do anything. They were simply fungible objects, pumping out babies and keeping house.

Even if one were to ignore the exceptional women of history–the Hypatias and Hatshepsuts and Hildegards, the Eleanors and Aethelflaeds and Nzinga Mbandes, the Ching Shihs and Khutuluns and Tomoe Gozens–the women who, more or less, took on roles usually identified as masculine–one is left with women who spun, who wove, who ran households, who served as the supply chain managers for their male relatives’ armies, who participated in their husbands’ businesses and explorations–or took them over, after those husbands died–who, in general, performed enormous amounts of unpaid labor on their families’ behalves and got absolutely no credit for it.

Tycho Brahe said of his sister, Sophie Brahe Thott, that she had as fine a mind as any man. She’s worth reading about. She is very far from alone.

These women are often erased in history. They took their husbands’ names. They lived in societies that believed the only time a woman’s name should be recorded was when she was born, got married, gave birth, or died.

And they are often erased in literature, as well.

(It’s interesting to me that at least one review of Steles of the Sky so far has said that every major character other than the protagonist is female. This is not actually true–the points of view are about equally divided between women and men) but it does go to show that if you start approaching parity, people think the women are taking over.)

Even in modern fantasy literature, where we ought to know better. Where we have the scholarship and the knowledge of history not to erase the accomplishments of historical women by treating each and every one as an exception, a lone thing, and not part of a tradition.

Capable women are not the exception. But women who have managed to make such nuisances of themselves that they cannot entirely be erased from history–they are harder to find.

So I wanted to talk about some of those accomplishments. I wanted to show some epic women who were not warriors, not fireball-throwing sorcerers, and who still managed to have an impact. (There are some warriors and sorcerers too, of course.)

I wanted to remind myself, as a writer and a human being, that capable women are not the exception in history. That they should not be in literature, either.

Also, if awesome women aren’t enough for you, this book has an amazing Donato cover, and an equally amazing Ellisa Mitchell map.

*And–here’s the even bigger idea! (and way to bury the lede, Bear!), but I have an announcement to make.

*ahem*

There are going to be more Eternal Sky books!

While Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and Steles of the Sky comprise a complete story arc in and of themselves, I can now reveal that Tor will be publishing at least three more books in this world. We came to an agreement late last month, and I can tell you this–here, exclusively:

This second trilogy, The Lotus Kingdoms, will follow the adventures of two mismatched mercenaries–a metal automaton and a masterless swordsman–who become embroiled in the deadly interkingdom and interfamilial politics in a sweltering tropical land.

Look for them starting in 2017.

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Steles of the Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Geoff Rodkey

Some stories are easy. Others fight you, pretending to be one thing but then turning into something else entirely. Geoff Rodkey knows about the latter — for his Chronicles of Egg series, of which Blue Sea Burning is the final installment, he had to play his story like a marlin before reeling it in. Here he is to talk about how made it all work.

GEOFF RODKEY:

Crooked Pete was a pirate. And all the other pirates thought he was cursed, so they wouldn’t let him on board their ships.

In the end, the only job he could get was working as a waiter in a pirate-themed restaurant.

He didn’t like it much.

Then one day during the lunch shift, a lawyer came into the restaurant. He had a proposition for Pete, on behalf of a mysterious client…

Crooked Pete and his employment problems–not a Big Idea so much as a punch line–popped into my head one day for no apparent reason, and eventually became the inspiration for the Chronicles of Egg trilogy, the final volume of which, Blue Sea Burning, came out this week.

But while the series is full of a lot of things–adventure, comedy, mystery, romance, political intrigue, and a whole lot of mutilated pirates–one thing it DOESN’T have is a character named Crooked Pete.

Or a pirate-themed restaurant.

Or even a lawyer. (No, wait…there’s one lawyer. But it’s a different lawyer.)

Because in the two years I spent thinking about the story before I started writing it, all of those things fell away. As a character, Crooked Pete turned out to be a dead end. The island full of rival pirate crews who’d blacklisted him became too realistic (and economically primitive) to accommodate a restaurant, let alone a pirate-themed one.

And the mysterious client, who I’d initially envisioned as an obnoxious 13-year-old rich kid with a family that had recently disappeared under suspicious circumstances, leaving him in sole control of their island plantation and possessed of a manic grandiosity that led him to hire Crooked Pete as muscle in a clumsy attempt to intimidate people…well, at first, I thought that kid was going to be the main character.

But he was kind of an asshole.

So he became a hapless, dirt-poor kid with the unfortunate name of Egg, who bears no resemblance to the original rich kid except in his core predicament: that his family’s accidental disappearance was no accident…and the sinister forces behind it are plotting to kill him next, even though he has no idea why.

In the end, almost nothing survived of my original idea except the setting, the tone, and the intent: to write the kind of funny/thrilling/emotionally resonant story I wanted to read.

(The fact that The Chronicles of Egg wound up being marketed as middle grade seems to indicate that I have the literary taste of a sixth grader. I’m not sure what to say about that, except possibly “sixth graders have awesome taste.”)

In my experience, which includes film and TV as well as books, the best stories are often like this–whether they’re the product of a Big Idea or not, the end result can look very different from its original inspiration.

You start out with one thing. And it seems kind of cool, but it doesn’t quite work, or it’s too slender to support a story. And if you try to write it, it falls over dead.

So you put it aside. But there’s a core element that’s compelling enough that you can’t let it go. It keeps percolating in your mind, sometimes for years, slowly morphing into something that’s unrecognizable except for some basic DNA it shares with the original thing that inspired you.

And one day, something clicks, and you can finally start writing it.

This was true not just of the Egg books, but of the first screenplay I ever sold. It started out as an idea for a novel about a small-town English teacher in Indiana who gets put on trial, Socrates-style, for corrupting the young.

By the time I sold it as a screenplay five years later, it had become a story about a shady sports agent who arrives in a small town in Texas to recruit the high school’s star quarterback and, in a convoluted turn of events, winds up coaching the football team, loses the big game, and gets hung under the goal posts by an angry mob.

Which had nothing in common with the original idea except the arrival of a stranger in a small town who, by the end of Act Three, finds himself hanging from a rope. But it was a fun script. (The townspeople cut him down before he actually dies; it was a dark comedy, but it wasn’t THAT dark.)

Unfortunately, since it’s currently buried in the underground facility in the San Fernando Valley where Universal Pictures stores all their unproduced screenplays, nobody can read it.

But that’s not true of the Egg books! Now that Blue Sea Burning is out, all three of them are available. If you want to check them out, it’s best to start at the beginning, with Deadweather and Sunrise (here’s an excerpt, to catch you up).

It’s a fun read, even if it doesn’t actually contain a disgruntled pirate waiting tables in a pirate-themed restaurant.

—-

Blue Sea Burning: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Robin Riopelle

Our pasts shape us, build us and sometimes haunt us. So when part of our past is obscured from us, it creates a tension in our lives — the sort of tension that can, naturally enough, make for great stories. Robin Riopelle’s novel Deadroads looks at pasts, hidden and otherwise; Riopelle’s here to explain how they matter to her tale.

ROBIN RIOPELLE:

The Department of Motor Vehicles clerk was very helpful. “Would she have changed her name?” she asked me, peering at her computer screen. I nodded dumbly, elated and terrified.

I had been searching for years. My parents had given me my original paperwork; I had been Robin Riopelle for my first five days. I’d plied with wine the lawyer who had handled my adoption and he’d let slip my birth mother’s name. Deep in the stacks of the Toronto Reference Library, I had meticulously sifted through city directories, tracing her easily until 1983. Then, she’d vanished.

“She’s got a rural address now,” the clerk continued. “Here you go!” She tore the sheet of paper from the dot-matrix printer, and passed it over the partition. “Anything else I can do for you?”

I held the key to my past in my hand. Now what?

A character in my novel Deadroads faces the same dilemma, albeit via a demon rather than a nice smiley clerk at a government office. For that character, and for me, for anyone trying to make contact with their past, comes the moment of decision: Do I follow through? What the hell happens if I reach out into this unknown?

Reconciling the past with the present—or being unable to do it—is at the heart of a lot of fiction, my own included. Deadroads finds siblings reluctantly reuniting after a lengthy and possibly supernatural separation. I took that step into the unknown. I have now been in contact with my birth family for more than 20 years. I know how weird and wonderful—and awful and ferocious—getting in touch with the past can be.

Writer William Faulkner famously claimed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Almost all of us consider this big idea at some time or another. Our self-identity depends so much on what we know about our past, and when the story is muddy or missing bits, well—it’s the stuff of myth and legend.

Adoption in Euro-cultural fiction usually results in one of three outcomes: the happy adoption of an orphan; an unhappy reunion with a birth family; or a happy reunion, usually after the adoptive parents have conveniently expired. Rarely does the tale end with the adoptee having it all, with two sets of functioning parents.

Take the Old Testament hero, Moses. Set adrift in a basket, scooped up by a fetching Egyptian princess, raised as a pharaoh’s son. Moses is an adoptee who chooses birth family over adoptive family. There’s lambs’ blood on lintels and rains of frogs and a final, brutal, parting of seas.

If I gave you 30 seconds, you could probably come up with a healthy list of orphans/bastards/adoptees in Western pop culture: the “bad seed” or conversely, the “chosen one”—heroes and villains raised by people who aren’t their “true” parents, growing into their inevitable “destiny”. A cage match between biology and upbringing.

Some are stupendously messed up by separation and reunion such as the Greek king Oedipus, who unwittingly kills his birth father and marries his birth mother (yikes). For other characters, like Oliver Twist, adoption provides the double-rainbow happy ending. I swear to god, Charles Dickens is responsible for an entire orphanage of displaced literary children.

Some characters overcome murky starts to embrace their destiny, such as Luke Skywalker and sister Leia (complete with icky “romance”, which is an entire sub-genre for both tabloids and adoption researchers). I haven’t read ahead in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, so don’t spoil me, but I’m betting Jon Snow’s mother isn’t exactly a nobody. Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora is another puzzle, stymied by what he doesn’t know about his past.

In most of these cases, separation, discovery, and reunion drive the story, but there’s one striking similarity: The two sets of parents, birth and adoptive, rarely meet, and the adoptee doesn’t integrate them, either by choice or circumstance. Moses parts that sea, and doesn’t look back.

My experience tells me something else is more emotionally true: we are a fantastic mix of biology and circumstance, and we make our own destiny when we reconcile our divergent pasts.

In Deadroads, a sister reunites with her long-estranged family. It’s not easy for anyone. She doesn’t fit in. She’s grown up with a different worldview. There are ghosts, and disagreements about the best ways to deal with them.

Ghosts are nice, easy shorthand for “the past”. They are the chewy center of the unfinished business chocolate. Deadroads is full of them. The ghosts and demons haunting the now-grown children are an inheritance, the awful unclaimed baggage of parental misadventures. The problem of how to cope with this inheritance is what fuels the story.

As the characters in Deadroads struggle with both literal and figurative ghosts, they finally acknowledge that the past exists hand-in-hand with the present. When people ask me if I think adoption reunions are a good idea, I can only tell them what I know to be true for myself: by knowing both my families, I know myself better.

It’s what many literary heroes want, when you boil it right down: to discover who they truly are, and to know their place in the world.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Emily Jiang

I don’t often get a chance to do a picture book on the Big Idea, so I’m pleased that one of the rare examples happens to be by a friend of mine, Emily Jiang, who wrote Summoning the Phoenix, illustrated by April Chu. The book received a coveted starred review by Kirkus (“[an] informative and gracefully illustrated twin debut.”] and covers an unusual topic (for here in the US, anyway): Chinese music instruments. How does one make this subject sing? Jiang is here to tell you.

EMILY JIANG:

I had always envisioned my first published book to be a novel, not a picture book. Writing a good picture book is difficult because of the need for economy of prose, the craft in conveying a ton of information in very few words. Plus, I’d been immersed in writing and rewriting young adult novels after graduating with my MFA in Creative Writing. I was certain something was going to happen with the novels, but somehow the picture book Summoning the Phoenix just caught fire.

The spark for Summoning the Phoenix came from researching and building my magic system for my YA fantasy novel, for which I had started world building a few years ago when I was in grad school. High fantasy is one of my favorite genres, yet as a reader I was over-saturated by fantasy worlds that were set in an alternate medieval Europe. I wanted to create a ancient alternate fantasy world that was All-Asian-All-the-Time, and I wanted my magic to have a uniquely Asian logic to it. Yet as an English major, my knowledge of European culture and history vastly exceeded my knowledge of Asian culture and history. So I researched.

My world building consultant and confidant in grad school was a renegade Buddhist nun who is the most unlikely nun anyone will ever meet. Instead of projecting a calm, pious aura, she is bubbly, irreverent, and sassy, always ready for a good laugh. Plus, she loves young adult fantasy, especially Harry Potter, both the books and the movies.

It was my renegade Buddhist nun friend who helped pick apart my magic system that I had designed to be All-Asian-All-the-Time. When I informed her that magic in my world would be based on Asian medical concepts and incorporating ideas like qi, or life force, and acupuncture points, she remarked that it sounded similar to Naruto, a popular manga and anime series. No, I replied, not bothering to let her know that I had never seen or read Naruto. My magic system was different and better because it would also incorporate the Asian elements layered on top of qi and acupuncture points. That’s when my unlikely nun friend started laughing, stopping only to tell me that now my world sounded like a cross between Naruto and Avatar the Last Airbender, the television series, not the movie.

She insisted I watch those shows, and I did, reluctantly, only to discover that she was right. My magic system was eerily similar to those found in Naruto and in Avatar the Last Airbender. It’s always a mildly horrifying experience to realize that you’re being derivative without even knowing that you’re being derivative. Or, to be more accurate, I was somehow in synch with other creative worldbuilders, but because my stories weren’t published yet, I needed to revise my All-Asian-All-the-Time magic system so it wouldn’t seem derivative. After a lengthy brainstorm, I decided that I would add a musical aspect to it. Some of my favorite genre novels featured musicians: Dragonsong by Anne McCaffrey, Archangel by Sharon Shinn, and most recently Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. Why not create magical musicians who were All-Asian-All-the-Time?

There was one problem. While I am a classically trained pianist and singer, my education was all Western music. A few years ago, I had very little actual knowledge about Asian music beyond the 1960s Tawianese pop music my parents loved to listen to while cleaning the house. A few years ago, I couldn’t name any of the traditional Asian musical instruments. So I researched.

During my research, I chose to focus on musical instruments from China because it would more directly reflect my cultural heritage. After reading books and countless articles, I gained a sense that perhaps traditional Chinese music was not considered as good as classical European music. I found this quite ridiculous, since Chinese music has a tradition of thousands of years compared to European music, which was only a few hundred years old. After acquiring all this interesting knowledge about Chinese musical instruments, I wanted to share what I’ve learned, to celebrate the creation of traditional music from China. Driven by this enthusiasm, I pitched this idea to an editor, who, coincidentally, had always wanted to publish a picture book about Chinese music.

It was not an easy path. I had to continue to research, rewrite, and revise my manuscript at least six or seven times before my editor gave me a contract to sign. Even after an illustrator was brought on board, I was still refining my words of the picture book until Summoning the Phoenix was ready to go to print. In the end, it was worth the work.

Now that my picture book is finally published, it’s time for me to return to writing novels, especially adventures of magical musicians in my YA fantasy world that’s All-Asian-All-the-Time.

And that’s Two Big Ideas for the price of one!

—-

Summoning the Phoenix: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Katherine Addison

The worlds of fantasy offer up ample space for the imagination to play… but do they also and simultaneously constrict those same imaginations? Author Katherine Addison fears they might, and when it came to her novel The Goblin Emperor, Addison decided on a new world with a difference. She’s here to explain how, and why.

KATHERINE ADDISON:

By the time you finish writing a novel, it’s frequently somewhere between difficult and impossible to remember how you started, but in the case of The Goblin Emperor, I remember exactly: I wanted to write a story with both elves and airships. Because there was no reason I couldn’t, and it seemed like an awesome idea.

Once I’d thought of airships, it was inevitable that I would think of the Hindenburg. Although I love and write science fiction and fantasy–and don’t want to stop!–down at the bottom of my heart, in the darkness among the spiders and ghouls, I’m a horror writer. I tend to be interested in how things go wrong, and I’m drawn to catastrophe.

Everything else in the book came from that first decision to combine elves and airships and catastrophe and trying to think through the ramifications of each subsequent domino as it tipped to knock the domino behind it. As a part of this process, I found myself thinking a lot about science and technology and the conflicted relationship epic fantasy has with both of them.

By “epic fantasy,” I mean what Tolkien called “secondary-world fantasy” (which is a better name, but much more awkward): fantasies that take place entirely in made-up worlds with no reference to the real world at all. Tolkien himself is a prime example, and the genre continues to thrive. To give you some living practitioners, just off the top of my head: Kate Elliott, David Anthony Durham, Martha Wells, Scott Lynch, N. K. Jemisin, Laurie Marks, Ellen Kushner, Saladin Ahmed.

I love this genre and have since I was very small, but I do find its attitude towards science and technology frustrating. Somewhere along the line, we got it into our heads that any society with magic would, for some reason, stop advancing somewhere shy of the Industrial Revolution. The implicit (or explicit) assumption often seems to be that magic trumps gunpowder, like some weird game of Rock Paper Scissors. Or there’s been some sort of giant mysterious cataclysm that destroyed all the technology and (apparently) made everybody stupid. And we’ve all been brainwashed by Tolkien into believing that only evil people have (or want) technological advancements past the Spinning Jenny, and that a nostalgic pastoral technology-rejecting Arcadia is obviously better than, oh, I dunno, flush toilets. Or flashlights. Or fire alarms.

So we end up, most often, in some stagnated Hollywood version of “The Dark Ages” with castles and people in robes and no interest in science–because magic!–and the most technology you’ll see is maybe a catapult. Diana Wynne Jones’ brilliant Tough Guide to Fantasyland skewers this cobbled-together mess of assumptions and lazy thinking like it was a shish-kebab. The very fact that she could do so tells you just how codified this generic fantasy setting has become and how many writers use it.

The thing is, this set of assumptions and valuations becomes a cage. So even if you’re trying to write a society that has both magic and technology, it can be really hard to remember that the cage door isn’t actually closed. I had to keep reminding myself as I was writing The Goblin Emperor that technological progress is not bad, that scientific inquiry is awesome, that I wasn’t violating any genuine taboos by having steamships and factories and astronomers and clockmakers and gas lamps. And the enormous steam-powered drawbridge that the characters spend the whole book arguing about.

I don’t deny the appeal of a pastoral world, one without air-pollution or global warming or oil spills, and I think fantasy does provide a much-needed outlet for that craving of the imagination. I don’t want to do away with that. But fantasy can do so much more. There are so many other ways to imagine our relationship with scientific and technological progress than this Manichean either-or we’ve saddled ourselves with. I would love to see fantasy, as a genre, explore that, instead of cowering in the cage we’ve built ourselves, as it gets smaller and smaller every year.

As well as being a wicked satirist, Diana Wynne Jones was a brilliant fantasist (a propos of this discussion, I believe she was the author who introduced me to the radical idea that you could have magic and trains in the same world). In her short story, “The Sage of Theare,” set in a world hemmed about with rules and restrictions and lists, the anarchic Sage of Dissolution chalks this slogan on a wall: “IF RULES MAKE A FRAMEWORK FOR THE MIND TO CLIMB ABOUT IN, WHY SHOULD THE MIND NOT CLIMB RIGHT OUT, SAYS THE SAGE OF DISSOLUTION.”

Fundamentally, that’s what I want to say. These unwritten rules are a cage, and there is no reason we should not climb right out.

And that’s my Big Idea.

—-

The Goblin Emperor: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elle Cosimano

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 What’s in a name? If you’re author Elle Cosimano, it turns out quite a lot. The name of her protagonist in Nearly Gone was a key to unlocking the character — and the novel itself.

ELLE COSIMANO:

I don’t really feel like I know my characters until I know their names. The early stages of writing a book often feel like walking through a crowd at a party, trying to identify smiling faces that look only vaguely familiar across the room. There’s a comfort in knowing someone’s name, an implied closeness. So when my little brother turned eighteen and changed his name, I questioned whether I’d ever really known him at all.

Shannon had always been small, a wisp of a boy with a mop of hair that was bigger than he was. He was picked on mercilessly for years, for his too-petite size and his too-feminine name. He was the smallest kid on the wrestling team—hell, he was the smallest kid in all of his classes—and yet somehow, he managed to be the loudest and most troublesome, like he spent every waking hour trying to prove to the world that he was big.

The day he left for college must have felt to him like a fresh start. A way to become someone new. Someone stronger. He wrapped himself in the name Sean, burying Shannon inside him, expecting someone larger than life to come bursting through. And while I quipped to him that I didn’t know this boy named Sean, I don’t think I truly understood Shannon—his most deeply rooted fears and insecurities, or the acceptance he yearned for—until he chose to become someone new.

My main character’s name wasn’t always Nearly Boswell. Finding her name was a journey that seemed to mirror my brother’s search for a name that fit him inside. Thumbing through old journals and outlines, I could show you pages of ordinary names I considered: Rachael, Kate, Samantha—but none of these names called forth an image that fit the character I was creating. The girl I pictured in my head was inspired by a former co-worker, a single mother of two adrift in the aftermath of a painful divorce, who spent her lunch hours obsessing over the Missed Connections in the paper. She poked fun at the ads, as though it were only casual entertainment, but when she thought no one was watching, all that humor slipped away. She struck me as deeply lonely, as if she secretly hoped one of the ads had been written for her.

This image in mind, I tried on name after name, hoping one of them would ring true and help me see this character more clearly, but none of them fit. Who was she? What was she looking for?

Determined to find the right name, I started with a character sketch, a loosely scribbled outline of physical and personality traits. Her features were similar to, but not quite the same as her father’s, and while her hair was curly, it wasn’t as curly as her mother’s. She was good at math and science, almost top of her class. And she might have felt pretty sometimes, were it not for her second-hand clothes.

I ended up with a list of glass-half-empty words: almost, not quite, just about, sometimes. I found her name at the bottom of this glass. Here was a girl who was nearly.

Nearly. The word held a heartbreaking connotation that made me feel and relate to her more deeply. Because I’d felt nearly at points in my life, too.  I remembered the frustration of being a B+ student, the shame of being only worth kisses in secret but not being cute enough to date, and the pain of being loved, but not enough to hold my family together when it was tearing at the seams. Nearly became real, because she existed inside me.

Finally, my character had a name. And yet, something still didn’t fit.

Like my brother, I knew Nearly would never be satisfied to wear a name that mirrored her own sense of inadequacy. She wanted to be more. She ached to be enough. This girl, who dreamed big and set goals for herself despite odds and obstacles, would choose her own nickname, maybe even change it if she could.

And she did. As I wrote, Nearly took the nickname “Leigh”, a name that made her feel stronger and less ashamed. That choice helped me know her more deeply, just as my brother’s choice helped me to understand him. Nearly’s vehement rejection of her own name revealed her motivations and self-doubt. She wasn’t just looking for someone. She was looking to fill the void inside her—to feel whole.

My “Big Idea” revealed itself in this almost-missed connection between the significance of a search in the personal ads and the search for Nearly’s identity: that we are all, in some way, nearly—not just looking for someone else, but seeking to be someone else.  Like my brother who wanted to be bigger, Nearly who wanted to be more, and my co-worker pouring over the Missed Connections, we are all searching for our own missing piece.

—-

Nearly Gone: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Author Adam Christopher believes two words are incredibly important to any writer, and those two words aren’t “get paid” (they’re important too, to be sure). What are those two words, and how do they relate to his latest novel, The Burning Dark (which, incidentally, received a coveted starred review in Library Journal)? Christopher’s about to tell you.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

What if…?

It’s the single most valuable question in a writer’s toolbox. From those two words, an infinite variety of story can flow. I might even go so far as to say it’s the foundation of storytelling.

Except, while you can reverse-engineer that initial question out of each of my first four published novels—Empire State, Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic, Hang Wire—I’m not sure any of those actually started from that point. There are as many ways to come to a story or idea as there are stories or ideas. “What if?” is a powerful tool, and although you’ll be answering that question when you write a book, you don’t necessarily need to be conscious of the fact.

But for The Burning Dark, my first foray into the kind of space opera-tinged science fiction that I grew up adoring, it wasn’t just one “what if?” question that gave me the big idea for the book. It was two.

I like science fiction of the kind that features spaceships and warp drives, federations that embrace a thousand different alien races and cultures, galactic empires that stretch across impossible distances. I was always going to write a book that had a least some of that in it.

But I also like ghost stories. From an early age, they were my favourite kind of story, and as I got older—helped, no doubt, by living right next door to a small library which had a remarkably well-stocked section on the paranormal—I developed into something of an armchair ghosthunter. From creaky old houses filled with shadows and cold spots and doors that open and close all by themselves, to people being thrown out of bed and living rooms trashed by poltergeists, I drank it all in. Whether such phenomena are real or not is beside the point—it’s a fascinating aspect of social and cultural anthropology. And they make for some damn fine stories.

So… what if you had a traditional ghost story, but instead of a haunted house, you had a haunted space station? What would that be like? How much of the trappings of old fashioned supernatural tales could you include, and what would be different?

The Burning Dark was born. Here I had an idea to combine two interests—space and ghosts—into a single story. Sure, it’s not like I’m the first person to have ever thought of that, but it immediately struck me as a fascinating idea. And one as creepy as heck.

I began to build the world. Space opera is science fiction on an epic scale, and while I was writing a small scale ghost story set aboard a decommissioned space station at the edge of nowhere, a larger universe unfolded. From that “what if?” question, I found myself describing the state of the human race a thousand years in the future, and the terrible war they were fighting against a machine intelligence, a hive-mind without reason or motive that was swarming across the galaxy with eight-legged killing machines.

And then I had another “what if?” question burning in my mind.

I don’t remember where I first heard the story, but the “urban” legend of the lost cosmonauts is something that has creeped the bejeezus out of me for years. As the story goes, before Yuri Gagarin’s historic space flight, the Soviets sent up a whole bunch of cosmonauts, each mission ending in failure and death, with capsules either burning up on re-entry or drifting off into the infinite black. It’s a slice of Cold War paranoia, backed up by the Soviet’s Orwellian habit of erasing people they didn’t like from history, literally airbrushing people from photographs and deleting them from records. It’s a scary and terrible story about sending heroes to their deaths, but there’s little evidence to support it.

Except for some audio recordings, made by a pair of Italian brothers, radio enthusiasts who managed to patch into Soviet communications. The recordings are indistinct and poor quality, and, to be totally honest, could be of anything. The most famous recording is of a female cosmonaut dubbed Ludmila, apparently reporting to Soviet mission control as her capsule burns around her. Listening to her is a very weird, even slightly disturbing experience. While there is no doubt that the recording came from the Italians—that the brothers picked up something—whether or not it is what it is supposed to be is, like a good ghost story, irrelevant.

But what if the lost cosmonauts were real? What if Ludmila really did send a mayday to Earth as her mission went fatally wrong?

What if someone, a thousand years later, picked up her signal, trying desperately to answer the call before realising the transmission was an echo from another time?

And… what if Ludmila answered back?

From two different but equally unsettling ideas I had something new, something that was as big as space opera but as claustrophobic and tense as an old ghost story told around a campfire. A story about space marines fighting alien war machines, while confronting an evil far stranger, darker and older than anything they have faced before.

All from two simple words: What… if?

—-

The Burning Dark:Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Bill Quick

It’s the end of the world as we know it — and we do know it, because the end of the world has been essayed enough over the years. How to change it up and make things fresh? That was the question Bill Quick asked himself for his latest novel, Lightning Fall. This is how he decided to do it.

BILL QUICK:

I’ve been writing science fiction for going on fifty years now. I was weaned on the later Golden Age guys like Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Niven, Pournelle, and the man who inspired me face-to-face, Ted Cogswell, who wrote a landmark story called The Spectre General back in the day, to whom I dedicated my first published novel, Dreams of Flesh and Sand.

I still like all these writers. For better or worse, their use of big canvases, themes, and concepts still inspires the way I write and what I choose to write about. In particular, I’ve always been moved by what were once called disaster novels, but now have been sliced and diced into several sub-genres, including apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction.   There aren’t many books I still re-read. Books like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land have not worn well with me, but every few years I pick up an book called Lucifer’s Hammer, written by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, turn to page one, and make the trek out of a burning Los Angeles once again.

I’d always intended to try my hand at this sort of epic, but somehow, in the course of writing and selling a few dozen other books, I never quite got around to it. Until now.

EMP (electromagnetic pulse) fiction has become almost a sub-genre of its own. I’ve read several examples, and found one or two impressive, but I noticed that most of them used EMP as a McGuffin: An EMP happens, and that’s the end. Everything else is all about surviving the sudden imposition of an 18th century environment on a technological civilization. A particularly risible example of this approach was a recent TV series, Revolution, which depicted young people contending against threats with steel swords.  Apparently none of the screenwriters had any idea just how much technology was involved in making swords, let alone making and working steel, and how rare that knowledge is in present day society.

My view of modern technological culture is that it is well-nigh impossible to understand how interconnected everything has become. But I wanted to write an EMP disaster novel that tried, as well as I was able, to show the social, political, technological, economic, and cultural brittleness and frailty inherent in the existence we take for granted.

The best way to do so, it seemed to me, was not simply to turn out the lights, but to turn out only some of them – and then tell the tale of the sort of problems modern America would face if somebody or something abruptly removed, say, California from our current scenery.

A book I read a long time ago, The Late, Great State of California, took a similar tack, but handled it as a laundry list of what America would lose if California sank into the ocean after The Big One.

After much thought, I decided that things would be considerably more complicated than that. It took me a couple of years of research and writing to work out those complications, and I discovered in the process that human factors and reactions would likely have at least as much effect, if not more, than the problems created by the technological disaster.

We like to console ourselves that things generally work out for the best, that our leaders usually make intelligent, rational decisions, and that tomorrow will be a better day.  Unfortunately, history teaches us this is not always, or even usually, the case.

Lightning Fall: A Novel of Disaster, is my attempt to explain, in classic hard SF tropes, why and how catastrophe has been such an enduring and intimate feature of human history.

And is there a happy ending?

Well…maybe. Depends on what you mean by happy, I guess.

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Lightning Fall: Amazon (Kindle)|Payloadz (ePub)|Createspace (paperback)

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