The Big Idea: Marko Kloos

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

MARKO KLOOS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

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

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

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

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

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

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

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

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

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

There it all was: fires, scarcity, refugees.

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

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

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

Not Yet.

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

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

Not Yet.

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

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

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

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

I do hope they’re right.

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Gillian Murray Kendall

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

GILLIAN MURRAY KENDALL:

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

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

Enough stuff?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps all books are so.

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

So would those everywhere who burn and ban books.

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

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

Well, maybe.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

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

ALETHEA KONTIS: 

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

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

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

I am all about forging one’s own destiny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I am so incredibly proud of that.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Myke Cole

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

MYKE COLE:

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

Relationships are tough.

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s the big idea behind Javelin Rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schweitzer is changed, dramatically, irrevocably.

And so are we all.

Life won’t have it any other way.

—-

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

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

 

The Big Idea: Sam Sykes

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

SAM SYKES:

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

The ability to be recognized as a threat to society.

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

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

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

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

Until it started.

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

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

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

I want in.

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Kate Forsyth

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

KATE FORSYTH:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I decided two things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

—-

The Rebirth of Rapunzel: Amazon|Book Repository|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

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

JIM OTTAVIANI:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done and done.

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

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

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

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

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alan Smale

The Roman Empire in the New World? That’s the idea of Sidewise Award winner Alan Smale’s The Clash of Eagles trilogy, of which Eagle in Exile is the second book. But in imagining an alternate history, how does one give honor to actual history, and avoid the easy traps of historical fiction? Smale offers up his thoughts.

ALAN SMALE: 

I was still a recent import to the U.S. when the hoopla surrounding the Columbus quincentenary started up. My own one-man version of the British Invasion was going rather well at the time; what I’d originally thought would be an educational three-year stint in the New World was being overwritten by the strong urge to stick around. Nearly a quarter century later I’m still here, and I’m now an American myself.

From my outsider perspective it was gratifying to see how quickly the simplistic and myth-based story of Columbus I was used to got replaced with a more factual, thoughtful, and nuanced reconsideration of his voyages and impact. I was just beginning to get published as a writer of short fiction at the time, but even then ideas were swirling around my brain. Yet it took another decade and a half, much more writing experience, plus the unanticipated kick-start of reading Charles Mann’s 1491, for my conscious and unconscious minds to get their acts together.

In Clash of Eagles, the Roman Empire never fell. Now it’s the early thirteenth century and a legion under general Gaius Marcellinus is marching west from the Chesapeake Bay towards the great Mississippian city of Cahokia, a thriving community of some 20,000 people. (Cahokia really existed, of course. The Mississippians were mound-builders, and even today it’s fun to stand on top of what we now call Monks Mound, a giant earthwork 100 feet high and 1000 feet across at the base, look out over the surrounding more gently-mounded landscape, and imagine how glorious Cahokia must have been in its heyday…)

And that was the Big Idea behind Clash of Eagles: Ancient Rome invades North America when the Mississippian Culture is at its height. Subtext: Invoke a different European invasion of the North American continent, in a different way and at a different time but with fairly similar motives – plunder and personal glory – and explore what happens.

Hold up a mirror to the world we know. Attempt a new perspective on the culture clash between invaders who have “discovered” this great new world of Nova Hesperia, and the people who have been living there all along.

Of course, along the way desperate battles, pathos, and hardship ensue.

As the second volume, Eagle in Exile, begins, Gaius Marcellinus is living in a Cahokia that’s suffered considerable death and destruction due to its Mourning War with the Iroqua of the northeast. Marcellinus has done his level best to help his new Cahokian friends, with – let’s put it kindly – mixed results. And then there’s a coup. Marcellinus and a small band of his Cahokian friends are expelled from Cahokia and have to survive as stateless wanderers on the Mississippi. But, but: in the meantime, the Emperor of Rome has hardly forgotten about Nova Hesperia. More legions are coming, and Cahokia is not ready for them. Unless Marcellinus and his new friends can turn things around, they’re hosed. And there may be an enemy even greater than Imperial Rome on the Hesperian horizon.

This kind of story has antecedents. All stories do. The theme of the helpful and notionally more ‘advanced’ outsider entering and influencing a foreign culture has been explored from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Lest Darkness Fall to Dances with Wolves and Avatar. Which was kind of the point. I wanted to dig into a new version of the “discovery” of the North American continent. But I also wanted to turn the Avatar cliché on its ear, because I’ve never believed it. I’m generally unsatisfied with protagonists who adapt into new and radically different cultures with such speed and ease that they’re indiscriminately slaying members of their old culture by the end of the book (or movie). Perhaps there are exceptions, and even noble ones, but by and large honorable human beings just don’t behave that way.

Marcellinus is an honorable man. He’s hardly blind to Rome’s flaws, but he will live and die a Roman. He tries to convince himself — sometimes on tenuous grounds — that his actions are in Rome’s interests as well as Cahokia’s.

More crucially, Marcellinus has sworn an oath to never take up arms against Rome. This puts him in a bit of a bind. He is no longer a mere soldier. He has made new friends, new family, a new community and new allegiances, and he can hardly abandon Cahokia and the other North American peoples to their fate when his inside knowledge of Rome might be able to help them.

He can’t fight Rome, and yet he can’t not help Cahokia. Really, what’s a guy supposed to do?

So, the Big Idea of Eagle in Exile: wild adventure in an ancient North America, while in the process standing that comfy Dances with Wolves trope on its ear. With a secondary theme or minor or, hey, side order of: what does an honorable man do in an impossible situation?

With the easy answers ruled out, Marcellinus has to get creative. And after all, it’s not like everyone is just going to do what he says. Cahokia’s chiefs and elders have their own ideas, their own friends and enemies and concerns, and they don’t line up neatly with Marcellinus’s. Marcellinus is quite good at war, but he’ll have to develop a range of other skills to negotiate a treacherous landscape like this. He’ll have to learn fast, think on his feet, and try not to get killed or – given his less than stellar record so far – try not to get anyone else killed either.

I have to say, I’m glad my arrival in North America was calmer than Marcellinus’s. I might not have made it quite as far as I have.

—-

Eagle in Exile: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Susan Jane Bigelow

The real world can sometimes get you down. But if you’re a writer, at least, you can use that as an opportunity to imagine another world. At a low point, Susan Jane Bigelow did just that — and her novel Broken was the result. Here she is to tell you about it.

SUSAN JANE BIGELOW:

Hope is a fragile thing, especially when times are bad. It’s easy to get lost in cynicism, to dwell on the awfulness of people and governments and systems, and resign ourselves to whatever fate is in store for us. After all, if we don’t get our hopes up, they can’t be dashed… and sometimes, hope feels so far away that it’s hard even to imagine we could ever feel it again.

In 2004, after failing at my job as a high school teacher, getting a new job for a lot less money, and watching what felt like political disaster unfold when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, I wrote a book about hope to make myself feel better.

That book, Broken, turned into a four-book series. And really, at its heart the Extrahuman Union series is about is trying to find that narrow thread of hope to carry us through the darkest times.

I suppose it is also about superheroes in space. That’s important too.

The world of this book is teetering on the brink of disaster. The grip of a fascist government is tightening around everyone, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Earth and the dozens of colony worlds that make up the Confederation are falling into a long, long darkness.

Only Michael Forward can see a way through. Michael is just a kid, but he’s been saddled with extrahuman powers that let him see the possible futures of everyone he looks at. He knows how bad things are going to get, but he also knows that there’s a slender path through the darkness that leads to a better future for everyone. All he has to do is find it.

For that, though, he needs the help of Silverwyng, a former member of the Extrahuman Union who started living on the streets of 22nd Century New York after she lost the ability to fly, and who now goes by the name “Broken.” Broken has no hope. Everything she loved about her life is gone, and she is nothing but a mess of fury, despair, and cynicism when Michael finally tracks her down.

This is the story of how she helps Michael Forward and the orphan baby Ian, but it’s also the story of how Broken comes back to life. It’s the story of how she remembers who she was, and starts to have faith in herself and in the idea that she could have a future.

Broken is the first chapter of her story, to be continued in the forthcoming books Sky Ranger, The Spark, and Extrahumans.

And yes, I wrote it to make myself feel better about politics. But I also wrote it because one of my fundamental beliefs is that things can and will always get better, no matter how bad it seems now. Fate is cruel and life is hard, but faith in humanity and hope for the future are worth hanging on to.

This is not an easy thing to write. There’s a fine line to walk between hopelessness and corny, and it’s very tempting to swerve to one side or the other. The first draft of this book, which was written for NaNoWriMo 2004, was a lot darker than the final product. There was a lot more death and despair. You’re lucky I cut out the part where Broken eats a dead cat. You’re welcome.

As for why I chose to use super-powered people, well… they’re cool! But they’re also symbols of hope, in a way, especially some of the better ones. Implicit in a lot of superhero narrative is the idea that no matter how bad things may get, the day will always be saved.

I still believe that it will be. And I hope that Broken succeeds in conveying that!

—-

Broken: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo

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

The Big Idea: Sonia Orin Lyris

If you think about it, there are practical issues to seeing the future. This fact was not lost on Sonia Orin Lyris, and in today’s Big Idea, she delves into some of those issues and what they mean for the characters in her novel The Seer.

SONIA ORIN LYRIS:

In the opening scene of The Seer, I attempted to transcend one of my favorite cliches: in the darkest hours of the night, in a blustering storm, comes an urgent pounding on a weather-beaten door.

I wanted to start by addressing something that has been nagging at me for years: high fantasy’s tendency to not include women and babies and young children. Do we think them too fragile and vulnerable to be a part of the main action? Is that the problem?

Hmm, I thought. We’ll see about that.

Inside the shack is a mother, an infant child, and a young girl. The man at the door has wealth and power and weapons. He wants answers.

When I pick up a book, I want to travel somewhere. I want to sink into the author’s world and see through the eyes of the people who live there. As an author, it is my job to make that journey come alive. For myself and for my reader. So I make it as real as I can.

In our real world, women have sex, get pregnant, and have babies. Food must be procured. Diapers must be changed. When they choose, the powerful — unless restrained — take advantage of the weak.

Let’s go there, I thought.

I discovered that the young girl inside the shack, named Amarta, sees into the future. I looked around the wretched, poor hovel in which they lived, and I had all kinds of questions.

If she can see the future, why isn’t she rich? What does her family think of her? How does it feel to glimpse what will come?

Who is she?

I wrote The Seer to find out.

It was quickly clear to me that, given how useful a genuine seer would be to those in power, one of the major challenges Amarta would face would be pursuit and capture. I was intrigued by all the ways that might play out.

To make the story plausible, Amarta’s ability had to make sense in all the circumstances in which she found herself. Her ability would have to change as she changed, to mature as she did. Not only the content of what she was foreseeing, but how she understood herself in the context of her culture, family, and purpose.

So many questions arose for me. How does her foresight work? Does knowing the future change it? What can she do with this ability?

Can it be stopped?

Then I slammed into the hardest problem that a precognitive character brings to a story: if she can see into the future, what kind of story conflict is realistically possible? That is, why wouldn’t she simply foresee the problems and avoid them, like any sensible precognitive person?

That was when I started muttering, “What have I gotten myself into?”

There were more challenges yet. I came to realize I had stepped into a very large pile of metaphysics; if someone can see the future, this implies significant truths about the nature of reality, truths that ripple out across this created world. The genre doesn’t matter — I could be writing high fantasy or science fiction or mainstream — or poetry — and I would still have to make decisions about causality and determinism, and how information affects the physical. All those decisions expand out into the world, story, and characters.

And again, I found myself staring at the question: why didn’t she just see this coming?

The answer turned out to be both simpler and more complicated than I expected.

I have a passion for creating characters who are smart and insightful. Far smarter than me, if I can manage it, and more capable, too. This meant that any question I had about Amarta’s precognitive ability, someone else in the story would also be having. Similarly, any test or strategy I could devise to understand or track her, someone else would also be devising.

This, it turned out, was part of the answer; everyone concerned with Amarta was asking the same questions I was.

That was when it all started to come together for me, when I realized that the questions themselves were central to the story, and that the story would answer them in its own good time. As those around Amarta came to understand her better, they would react. They would have new questions. They would change. Nothing would be static.

And Amarta was not standing still either.

So, then: why couldn’t she simply avoid the problems that faced her?

Well, sometimes she could. Sometimes not.

She’s not a machine, you see; she has desires and passions, fears and dreams. How does a character with foresight, immersed in the consequences of what happens around her by virtue of her ability to foresee it, figure out what she wants in the first place?

If you can see the future, what choices are left to you?

If you can see the future, do you even want to see it?

In the end, I realized that the questions surrounding Amarta’s choices were universal questions: what do we want, and what are we willing to do to get it?

The answer also lay in an old adage: the map is not the territory. Regardless of what we understand, in our past, our present, or our future, we always understand through the lens of what we want, the way we see ourselves in our world, and the coalescing experiences of our lives. The best map in the world will not prevent us from getting lost, because it is, after all, only a map, and the territory is never its equal.

At one point in the book, someone asks Amarta this: “Are you ever surprised?”

“All the time,” she replies.

Yeah. Me, too.

—-

The SeerAmazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

 

The Big Idea: Lavie Tidhar

World Fantasy Award-winning author Lavie Tidar came up with a awful, terrible, no-good idea for a novel — and then wrote it anyway, resulting in A Man Lies Dreaming, which then went on to garner starred reviews in the trades, award nominations and wins, and the sort of glowing praise writers dream of. What’s this awful, terrible, no-good idea, and why did Tidhar decide to write it anyway? The answers await you below.

LAVIE TIDHAR:

The idea is simple: what if a disgraced Adolf Hitler was working as a lowly private eye in 1939’s London?

But I should backtrack.

Ideas are easy. Bad ideas are easier still. And as far as ideas go, this must be one of the worst. This was certainly the reaction of my agent, when I mentioned it to him – a slightly shocked expression followed by genuine laughter. That’s the thing I like about my agent – he gets it, even when it sounds (as my work often does to him) ridiculous.

“Write it!” he said. “No one will buy it, but you should write it!”

So let me backtrack a bit more. . .

Around 2011, I was living back in London. It was a cold winter. My novel Osama, which had been rejected by more publishers than I could count, was finally coming out from a small publisher in the UK. My Bookman Histories trilogy was finished and delivered, and I was out of contract, out of cash, and I didn’t have a coat. A lot of this, I suspect, would feed into the book later. . .

I was figuring out what to write next. At the time, I was trying to work on a difficult book which would eventually become The Violent Century. It was an act of faith, since no one was lining up to buy it, but it felt worthwhile, and so I struggled on. I don’t actually know why some books are so hard to write, while others feel natural, easy. But I remember the moment when A Man Lies Dreaming came. It was around one o’clock at night. I was reading one of Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels. They’re excellent crime thrillers about a private detective in Nazi Germany, sometimes difficult to read but generally brilliant. In the novel (I forget which one), Kerr makes a throwaway mention to the idea that Adolf Hitler could have himself become a private eye. A light pinged in my head.

It was the very ridiculousness of the idea that I liked. It was the sort of idea that is so offensive, so tasteless, that I would be terribly offended if anyone ever did it…

Which is why it appealed to me, I think. I thought, if anyone might actually get away with something like this, it could be me. I don’t mean this in a hubristic sense. But the Holocaust features large in my life. My family died in Auschwitz. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Germany, after the war. If anyone could do this – and I didn’t know if I could! – then it just might be me.

I remember being very excited about it. Then I tried to forget all about it.

Of course I didn’t want to write it. It was a ridiculous idea, an unsellable idea, and moreover it would require me to walk down a pretty dark path to reach it. So I put it away.

I worked on The Violent Century. In the meantime, to my surprise, Osama had picked up a few award nominations. It ended up winning a World Fantasy Award a year later, just a week after I’d finally finished the manuscript of The Violent Century – which quickly sold to Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.

All of this was pretty unexpected.

I tried not to work on “the Hitler book”. Occasionally the subject would come up, and people would laugh, and shake their heads. I tried to work on the next novel, but nothing worked. Meanwhile, on the sly, I was acquiring books. Hitler’s childhood. Hitler and women. Mein Kampf (my God, is there a book more unreadable than Mein Kampf?). Then the manga version of Mein Kampf. . . Hitler became a constant presence – Hitler the abused child, Hitler the starving artist in Vienna, living in an attic with his friend Gustl, Hitler the young soldier suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. . . Hitler, in fact, before he became Hitler.

Hitler was not a monster. None of us are. He was a person who had become monstrous by his actions, and I felt it was imperative for me to understand Hitler, to get into his head.

Let me say this: it’s not a particularly pleasant way of spending a year of your life, living with Adolf Hitler.

I didn’t want to write the book, but nothing else was working, and Hitler was everywhere, staring at me from the shadows, a fedora over his head: a bitter, unknown, raging Hitler, a man who history had passed by, a loser now eking a meagre living on the mean streets of London.

So I gave in.

It was late one night. The entire first draft was written at night, between midnight and 3am, very quickly and intensely. I remember that night, sitting at the computer, itching to get rid of him. I thought, I’ll only write the first line. It’s been stuck in my head for a long time, so long that it’s become a mantra. It was a line in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, in fact, whose casual anti-Semitism had arrested me for years.

No one would have to know, I figured. I’d just write it and then… move on.

So I wrote: She had the face of an intelligent Jewess.

And I couldn’t stop.

It’s been bottled up for so long that it all came out. My hero, “Wolf”, sitting in his office above the Jew baker’s shop. Outside the prostitutes are gathering in Berwick Street. The night is full of eyes, watching. And a glamorous Jewish woman, Isabella Rubinstein, comes waltzing into Wolf’s office with the offer of a job, to find her missing sister…

I couldn’t stop. I’m not sure I spoke to anyone much during this time. Hitler’s picture stared at me from the desk. The story unfolded, a dark comedy, a detective noir novel, an alternate history… take your pick. And all this while, grounding this lurid tale of shund, or pulp, was its possible narrator – Shomer, a Jewish pulp writer trapped in Auschwitz, the dreaming man of the title – a man seeking an impossible escape.

A Man Lies Dreaming, it seems to me, is several things. It is an argument about escape, about the power or futility of fantasy. It’s an argument began in Osama, continued in The Violent Century, and concluded here. Is escape possible – for any of us?

It is also, I think, a dark comedy. Humour underlines the horror, and humour has been an important part of survival, even during the worst times of the Holocaust. I loved writing Wolf – his impotent rage, his increasing hysteria, his endless rants. There is nothing funnier, after all, than a Hitler without power. “Do you not know who I am?” Wolf rages, at some point – and of course, by then, no one does.

At the same time, A Man Lies Dreaming is grounded in the contemporary. It is written at a time when Europe’s anti-immigrant rhetoric terrifyingly echoes the 1930s. Wolf’s London does not welcome immigrants, and Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts are marching in the streets, chanting slogans that eerily echo today’s. . .

. . . in the event, I did manage to get A Man Lies Dreaming published. It wasn’t particularly easy, but my editor at Hodder was incredibly supportive, and the book came out in late 2014, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award, and won me my first literary fiction prize, the £5k Jerwood Fiction Uncovered. It’s just come out in Italy, where they seem to like it. . . and it’s out now in the US from Melville House. The bad joke that was “Hitler: P.I.” had turned into the book I am most proud of having written – even if it’s damaged me in the process.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Adrian Selby

Writers write in the first person all the time, but what does it mean to do so when you’re trying to develop a world? It’s a question that mattered for Adrian Selby for his fantasy novel Snakewood. Today, he explains why.

ADRIAN SELBY:

“My name’s Gant and I’m sorry for my poor writing.”

So begins chapter one of my debut epic fantasy Snakewood.

As I planned out the book I fretted a great deal over how to immerse readers in the lands, cities and lives of the world of Sarun, in which the story is set. I recalled how vividly I daydreamed myself into Middle-earth as a teenager, following paths and roads hinted at in the texts but never walked. Tolkien’s were the first of many books I would admire over the years that followed for their ability to transport me utterly to an unfamiliar, magical place.

These are the books that made me miss my bus stop and left me dazed as I walked into the office, trying to tear my brain away from Thomas Cromwell’s poignant, tender caress of his daughter’s angel wings (Wolf Hall) or the faerie-soaked fields of Edgewood (Little, Big) and back to those essential first steps of a new day – kettle, teabags, email.

So when I started writing Snakewood, I thought, what do I need to do to deliver that level of immersion?

Of course, I needed to build a vivid world, and a magic system that integrated with that world, defined it and its many cultures. The wider reality of life being lived needed to crowd the edges of the story, but no further. I wanted also, like every writer, to make it so that the reader feels the scuff of boot, the scratch of stubble or the smell of a mortal wound.

The obvious answer to the latter was to go first person; put the reader behind the characters’ eyes, seeing what they see. There’s a marvelous directness to first person – a mainline into their feelings and thoughts – bringing the reader down from the sky of the omniscient narrator into the streets and fields.

But it was after reading James Joyce, Irvine Welsh, and especially Peter Carey’s True History Of The Kelly Gang that I realized the subliminal tension present in any first person narrative: the author is, necessarily, speaking for the character. It’s pure ventriloquism. No character’s internal monologue picks out the world and the speech of others so as to create just this story, using just these details, to engross, challenge and entertain. The authors I mentioned above, like so many others, have experimented with that act of ventriloquism – Joyce with stream of consciousness in Ulysses, Welsh with the strong, literal vernacular of Trainspotting. Carey played with the words and grammar so as to make it seem as though he wasn’t there at all, that this was Ned Kelly’s own hand. To wit:

“… a man might be a bank clerk or an overseer he might never have been lagged for nothing but still he knew in his heart what it were to be forced to wear the white hood in prison he knew what it were to be lashed for looking a warder in the eye and even a posh fellow like the Moth had breathed that air so the knowledge of unfairness were deep in his bone and marrow.”

More than ever before or since, I felt as though the author had disappeared. Ned Kelly was speaking, unable to express his feelings eloquently or write them down properly. The lack of eloquence was perfect, and at one point in the book, hugely moving. I loved it.

If Snakewood is a ‘found footage’ collection of narratives to be written ‘in their own words’, then Gant, as a poorly educated mercenary soldier, should struggle to express himself too. Gant’s narrative is central to the novel, for he is its emotional anchor, its principal ‘good guy’ and the great joy and challenge of writing it.

Every writer should be terrified of what they’re about to do when they start a book. I was terrified at the thought of writing a limited third person narrative with consistent, but not perfectly consistent, grammatical flaws on top of all the other things I needed to get right. It was the most challenging part of my attempt to disappear as an author; hoping that Gant, and the other narrators, would come through more purely. I wanted the characters of Snakewood to immerse you in their story and their world. Not mine.

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

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bonesteel

How is solving a crime like debugging a computer program? Elizabeth Bonesteel knows — and uses that knowledge for her novel, The Cold Between. Here she is now to tell you.

ELIZABETH BONESTEEL:

I worked as a software engineer for a long time. For the most part, it was great fun: I was being paid to solve puzzles. And although the more lucrative career paths involved software design and implementation, I always had the most affection for debugging. There is something about immersing yourself in reproducing a problem, walking through the code, frowning over it, coming at it from different angles until you have that ah-ha! moment of clarity. 90 percent of bug fixing is figuring out what the bug really is; at that point, the solution usually becomes obvious.

But sometimes that moment of clarity shows you far more than you wanted to see. Sometimes that moment of clarity makes you realize that the entire design is faulty, that the software is misrepresenting its data, lying to its users. What started out as a small, niggling bug becomes a massive rewrite. And it usually starts with breaking the news to someone above you who really doesn’t want to hear it.

Debugging is black-and-white. The solution may be convoluted and heuristic and gorgeously creative, but debugging is straightforward: Find out what is making the software do this bad thing it’s doing.

The real world, of course, is less easily unraveled.

Far in the future, humanity has reached out into the galaxy. Faster-than-light travel is ubiquitous, and terraformers allow otherwise desolate planets to be colonized. Central Corps, the military branch of the government unifying the colonies, spends more time with diplomacy and humanitarian efforts than armed conflict. We have survived our checkered history of violence, wandered into the stars, and arrived at a point where most of us live in peace.

And people are still murdered.

Commander Elena Shaw has seen death by starvation, death by accident, death in battle. But the murder of one of her crewmates — on one of the colonies they are pledged to protect — is a new one, and she doesn’t take it well. When it turns out the local police have arrested the man she was in bed with at the time of the murder, she takes it worse — and determines to fix the problem.

Elena is a mechanic. She’s a debugger by nature. She’s spent her entire adult life in the safe bubble of regimented Corps life, keeping starships running, fixing them when they break. When her crewmate is killed, she resorts to the problem-solving skills she has honed for years. She speaks to the police because she knows they are operating on invalid information. Her expectation is that once she corrects their inputs, they will release the wrong person and find the right one.

But people are not machines. Nor are political structures, as it happens, and that’s what throws her off. Providing her lover with an alibi should solve the problem, but the police don’t function the way she assumes they should. Her fix doesn’t work, because she’s misidentified the bug.

Back up, reassess the problem.

Only every time Elena reassesses the problem, she sees more cracks, more fissures, more false fronts and misrepresentations. And the smaller problem of who killed Danny becomes entangled with the unexplained destruction of a starship 25 years earlier — and possibly the threat of galactic war.

Elena is focused and determined, and entirely unable to admit the possibility that there might not be a solution after all. As everything she’s believed in falls apart around her, she clings ever more strongly to the hope that if she finds the truth, she’ll be able to put it all back the way it was.

The other possibility is more than she’s willing to face: that the life she knows and loves may be built on lies. People are not machines, and some things cannot ever be repaired. Sometimes the bug is fatal. And in her case, it’s not that the people above her don’t want to hear it — it’s that they might already know.

—-

The Cold Between: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David Lubar

Fun fact: Back in the day, I edited a humor area for AOL, and one of my regular contributors was a fellow named David Lubar, who wrote reliably funny and interesting stuff (this is a more rare talent than you might expect). Here in the future, both David and I are authors, him primarily of middle grade and young adult books, the latest of which is Character, Driven. I’m delighted to have seen David do so well, and I know for a fact David’s proud of what he’s pulled off in this new book, which has managed starred reviews from Booklist and Publishers Weekly. Here he is to tell you what he’s done, and how.

DAVID LUBAR:

Character, Driven begins with a bang, a chase, a tumble down the stairs, and snapping bones. It then slams to a dead stop against the brick wall of narrative intrusion as our hero discusses the importance of grabbing the reader with a strong opening. That scene lay untouched on my hard drive for ages, along with scads of other sentences, paragraphs, passages, and chapters I’d written over the decades in an attempt to bolster the self deception that every writing day is a productive day, even if I spend fifty percent of it Googling myself.  I saved the scene with the filename Edgy, in a nod to the ubiquitous editorial call for “edgy YA novels.”

Several years ago, Susan Chang, my editor at Tor, came to my house to help me brainstorm my next novel. I shared a variety of my ideas with her, sticking with science fiction, fantasy, and horror, because that’s what Tor is most known for. Just as she was leaving, on a whim, I read the edgy sample to her.

“That’s your next novel,” Susan said.

I pointed out that it wasn’t speculative fiction. She pointed out that she didn’t care. I agreed to take a shot at it. When I sat down in earnest (a small town in Idaho, named after Hemingway) to turn that scene into a novel, I thought the big idea was to break the fourth wall. My main character, Cliff Sparks (wink, wink), frequently pauses the action to point out some aspect of the novel-writing process, such as the difficulty of describing himself without resorting to trite devices, or the art of seamlessly emerging from a flashback. He even talks about the problem of talking to the reader, and confesses that the novel will have to be plot driven because he isn’t charismatic enough to draw the reader along on personality alone.

That’s a tasty mouthful to pitch to the target audience: Hey, want to read a metafictional coming-of-age novel? And it’s an enthralling and joyful project for someone like me, who took an abundance of English classes while drifting through college, adored Borges, and wanted to be James Joyce, or Hunter S. Thompson. Metafiction, stream-of-consciousness, wordplay, and the like are wonderful tools. But a hammer isn’t a bird house. And a narrative conceit is not necessarily a big idea.

I didn’t even realize I’d crafted an authentic big idea until I noticed that nearly every early reader, blurber, and professional reviewer used the same unexpected words to describe Cliff’s voice. And they weren’t words I’d strived to evoke. I am, at heart, a goofball. My most popular books, the Weenies short story collections, feature anthropomorphic hot dogs on the cover.  I’m proud to claim the creation of the largest lit fart in contemporary literature. I started out my career writing magazine humor. I live for retweets. I want to make you laugh. I need to make you laugh. And Character, Driven will do that. But it does something more.

The big idea is not that Cliff speaks to you, but that Cliff, who desperately wants to lose his virginity and is socially ill equipped to make much progress in that direction, speaks in an honest voice, holding nothing back. That’s one of the unexpected words: honest. Another is authentic. For example, when Cliff learns that a classmate involved in a tragedy might have been pregnant, he reveals his chain of thought: If she was pregnant, that meant she had sex, which meant he might have been able to have sex with her, had he had the courage to press his case. He also admits feeling guilty that compassion took second place to hormones. He shares his most intimate thoughts about sex, suicide, friendship, and art, among other things.

Cliff’s story is not my story. That’s a very good thing, given what he goes through. But his thoughts are drawn, in part, from my own memories of those awkward high school years.  Most of us have dark thoughts, fleeting or frequent, that we’d never dare admit to even our closest friend or partner. Somehow, as I traveled with Cliff through his story, I forgot to switch on that filter.

Many of my other narrators have said what’s on their mind, of course.  Though, to overwork a metaphor, they’ve only stripped down to their underwear, while Cliff has removed not just clothing, but layers of flesh. I really can’t explain why this book took the turn it did. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I never told myself I was going to reveal the deepest thoughts and secret yearnings of Cliff Sparks. I just gave him some of my pain, my regrets, my sorrows, my disappointments, and my youthful misconceptions, tempered with the lens of time.  Fear not, I also gave him courage, strength, heart, a sense of humor, a love of books, a fondness for wordplay, a fierce loyalty to his friends, and the ability to triumph against brutal obstacles. Somehow, I think it all worked out. Honestly.

—-

Character, Driven: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Mark Tompkins

In The Last Days of Magic, author Mark Tompkins has a novel way of looking at the legends, myths and fairy tales many of us grew up with – a way that changes what they mean for the world into which he writes a few new tales of his own.

MARK TOMPKINS:

Legends, myths, faery tales, some so old their origins are impossible to discern, others date back just a few centuries. We have all heard and read our share. We have our favorites. But what if they were true? This is the big idea behind The Last Days of Magic – what if those mythic tales were true and coexisted with our accepted history, and the world of today?

It all began with a single irresistible character and her small legend, compact enough to fit in a frame affixed to the wall of an Irish castle. Actually, it was more tower than castle, one with a box out front and a sign that pleaded with me to drop a Euro into the slot before entering. That was the legend of Red Mary, a woman so strong that years later when I finally decided to start a novel, she banged on the inside of my skull and demanded to be a protagonist. OK, Mary, if you are coming out then the darker versions of your legend, the ones with witchcraft, are going to prevail. And I am going to have to create a magical world for you to romp through.

Here I have to acknowledge the author Hannah Tinti, who once told me her mantra: What is the weirdest thing that could happen next?  Before setting pen to paper, I twisted that into a mantra of my own: What if it was true?

All those old Irish tales of faeries, the Sidhe, what if they were true? The ancient stories depicted the faeries as tall, powerful, and dangerous, none of this Tinkerbell stuff. They could not procreate with humans if they were dragonfly-sized! What if St. Patrick actually enchanted a bell so that its ring was lethal? Researching legends in Ireland, I stood looking at that bell – fittingly labeled Clogh-na-fullah, Bell of the Blood – at his museum in Armagh and wondered what that implied about him, his followers, and the age in which they lived. There were also anecdotes linking the Sidhe to the offspring of randy angels who had snuck out of heaven to seduce daughters of Eve. If those were true, would Lilith, rumored to be Adam’s first wife, be involved?

Soon, rather than inventing a world, I found myself assembling one out of old stories. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, I fit together the pieces, not only faded legends, biblical myths, and faery tales, but also those that I found in history books. As the puzzle came together, a new world was revealed, both magical and historical.

Then, like a somewhat demented deity going through the stages of creation, I started to populate this world with other magical elements from existing lore (I admit to a preference for the darker ones). Witches and their feats were drawn as much as possible from records of witch trials, after all in this world those were also true. Whenever a demon was called for, I plucked one out of the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, my favorite thousand-page “nonfiction” reference. For magical books, the only option was to use “real” ones, like The Sworn Book of Honorius, later used by John Dee, magician to Queen Elizabeth I, and the Book of Raziel, used by the twelfth century Jewish mystics Chassidei Ashkenaz.

One of the great joys of this process was when unexpected links spontaneously manifested. For example, I was researching an Italian mercenary, only to discover he was an English lord using an assumed name. A little more digging revealed that his secret handler was reputed to be Geoffrey Chaucer. Which then tied in beautifully with the magic Chaucer included in his tales.

But a problem arose with my What if it was true? big idea – namely, how could I reconcile my newly assembled medieval magical world with recent history and the contemporary world in which we reside? That was not a question I could ignore. I had to add a second big idea: If it were true, what happened to it? The closer to modern time the story got, the harder that question became. Recent history felt all but frozen in place, there were just too many records. I tried attacking the problem from various angles until a well-documented modern conspiracy – one to suppress and modify historical documents – presented itself as a way for my story to flow seamlessly into the 21st century.

This was all fun, and I happily burned up months putting it together, but it was not a novel; it was a stage. An expansive stage upon which the primary characters – including Red Mary, renamed Aisling – could struggle, love, question, and try to find their way, some making it, some getting lost, and others dying in the effort. Having a well-built stage, with all its magic and pitfalls, made it possible for me to follow along behind the characters, recording their motivations, feelings, and actions without having to worry about the rules of their world. Ultimately, it was the chronicle of their lives that turned my big idea into a novel, The Last Days of Magic.

—-

The Last Days of Magic: Amazon|Barnes&Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s|Audible

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The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

Ryk E. Spoor has a lot to say today about his Balanced Sword Trilogy, of which Phoenix Ascendant, his new novel, is the final installment. I’m going to let him get right to it. Except to say, for those of you who want it, here’s Spoor’s summary of everything that’s gone on before. Got it? On we go!

RYK E. SPOOR:

With the publication of Phoenix Ascendant, final volume of The Balanced Sword trilogy, I finally finish telling a story I started working on a quarter of a century ago, and bring Kyri Vantage, Tobimar Silverun, and Poplock Duckweed to the end of the adventure that brought them together.

That adventure begins, really, with the realization (in Phoenix Rising) by Kyri that the Justiciars of Myrionar – holy warriors for a god – have become corrupt and have been directly responsible for the murder of her parents and her brother, and gods only know how many other things.

This raises a question that is not answered until the end of Phoenix Ascendant: how is it even possible for the sworn servants of a deity to act against that deity’s basic will and not lose their powers, not be revealed and cast out by the god? Zarathan, the world Kyri and her friends live in, is a world where the gods are active. They may be bound from directly, personally interfering currently, but that forbiddance does not in any way apply to their own churches, their own servitors. By everything that they know, a god whose servants started taking a wrong turn would first lose their powers, and – if they persisted– be banished from the religion entirely, if they were lucky. If they weren’t, the god might well literally smite them where they stood.

Yet the Justiciars have not; in fact, they seem to retain their powers, and Myrionar has been utterly silent on their betrayal. The issue of their powers is partially answered when the heroes discover that the Justiciars have a tremendously powerful patron who can, apparently, give them the ability to emulate a Justiciar’s powers, but the question of why the god has done nothing, said nothing, even while the god’s power has been being whittled away to almost nothing remains.

The answer is that not merely the matter of Myrionar, but the chaos into which the entirety of Zarathan is descending, is part of a set of plans by a master manipulator – dueling with other chessmasters of power and tactics for a prize that the heroes do not even grasp until the final confrontation, and if Myrionar were to act before, as Jack Sparrow would say, “the opportune moment”, they could lose EVERYTHING.

Now, readers are usually willing to tolerate a certain level of mystery and confusion, but for that to be worth it, at the end there has to be a moment of “oh, of course, that makes sense of all these things that happened before!”.  I, the author, can only successfully pull off the surprise reveal of the mastermind’s plans if that reveal stands supported by previous events, so that – even in the midst of the “oh my god” reaction, there’s also an element of familiarity, of the feeling that the reader COULD have figured it out if they had just put together all of these previous elements correctly.

This is the same challenge faced by many mystery writers – the ones who write mysteries where neither the reader nor the detective knows who the criminal is and the reader is actually supposed to end up almost, but not quite, figuring the answer out before the detective does.

The trick to making that work, however, is pretty challenging. You have to give the reader enough information so that if you laid that information out for them clearly and in the right order, they would – with a fair likelihood – come to the correct conclusion, or one close enough to the truth to be given credit. You have to “play fair”, especially with more modern audiences who don’t like the detective/characters to just suddenly pull new information out of thin air that makes the mystery clear when before it was obscure.

Yet, at the same time, you have to hide that information – you cannot allow the reader (or most readers, anyway) to be able to easily “connect the dots”, or you have suddenly lost a huge amount of the tension for the reader, the questions that they’re reading to answer. In a trilogy like The Balanced Sword, it’s also a matter of keeping sympathy and identification with the protagonists. If the answer seems blindingly obvious to the readers, they can often start losing sympathy with the protagonists if any significant time passes. “How STUPID can they be? I saw this coming TWENTY CHAPTERS AGO!”

So as a writer I somehow have to conceal the truth … while keeping it in front of the reader all along, until the moment when I suddenly, dramatically point it out, managing a simultaneous moment of surprise and affirmation. I like to call this a “sleight of mind”, where I’m not using physical movement, but manner of presentation, emphasis, and expectations to distract the reader while I run key elements past them, to sit innocuously until their relevance abruptly becomes clear.

Many mystery writers do this well. One of the classic examples is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which she has the first-person viewpoint character be the murderer… and most readers never figure it out until Poirot reveals the truth. We literally watched through the murderer’s eyes and – by careful selection of exactly what we saw, and when scenes ended and began – Agatha Christie keeps us from recognizing that we have just been present at a murder.

An example of this not being done is the well-known “WHAM” moment in The Empire Strikes Back, where Darth Vader says “Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.”. Luke, of course, responds that he was told enough – that Vader killed his father – to which Vader replies, “No. I am your father.”

This is a terribly effective instant in cinema, but for me it always rang false, and after a bit I realized why – because, unlike my prior example, Lucas hadn’t played fair with me. There really were no hints to this sudden revelation; there was no evidence that it was true (other than the in-universe “search your feelings, you know it to be true” and implication that the Force was supporting this statement, it could’ve just been a total bulls**t ploy on the part of Vader), and in fact it’s known that Lucas only decided on this plot twist while he was working on Empire (meaning that even the odd phonic connection of “Vader” being similar to the German “Vater”, meaning Father, was a simple coincidence).

That always felt cheap to me. It’s easy to invent plot twists if you do it after the fact, and don’t go back to make the material support it. It’s lazy. (It also suddenly made the noble Obi-Wan Kenobi into a devious weasel). Once I started writing seriously, I was determined that no matter what ludicrous plot twists I was going to throw at my readers, those plot twists wouldn’t come out of nowhere; they would be moments not just of surprise, but of revelation, where the reader simultaneously says “What the heck???” and “Now I understand.”

This is what I hope I have accomplished in the final denouement of Phoenix Ascendant.

 

NOTE: the following sections will become increasingly spoilery for parts of the trilogy! If you don’t like spoilers, STOP NOW and (if you want to come back) go read the books first!

 

Both the question of why Myrionar could not speak or act against the false Justiciars, and the answer to that question, are bound up in a single statement which is repeated – in varying wording – several places in the trilogy, and best summed up as: “a god cannot act contrary to its nature.” I had to make sure that this fact was implied or, sometimes, outright stated multiple times… but do so in a way so that it was emphasized as a mystery, as a question, not as the answer, unless the “answer” was, itself, another false trail… because while that was indeed part of the answer, the real import of that fact was something very different, bearing on one of the other primary questions:

What does the true adversary of the trilogy want?

One of the common motivations of the Big Bad in epic fantasy is to conquer the world. When we first seem to discover the identity of the main adversary, the “patron” of the Justiciars, it appears that this is its goal. It is Viedraverion, first son of Kerlamion, King of All Hells, and Viedraverion is the mastermind behind Kerlamion, a classic “Man Behind the Man” scenario in which the monstrously powerful but rather straightforward Demon King would be the unwitting agent of his own son.

This isn’t the Big Bad’s true goal, however, and so in fairness I had to make this clear; in the scenes written from its point of view, the adversary reveals a rather disparaging attitude towards the entire concept of world conquest. Its actual objective is best hinted at, in fact, by commentary and thoughts relative to the other people it must interact with, and a careful reading shows that its greatest approval is reserved for someone who is not a demon at all, but a man: Master Wieran, the coldly fanatical alchemist-mage who is one of the primary antagonists in Phoenix in Shadow.

Yet it is also clear that all of this focuses on Kyri and Myrionar, when Myrionar is an extremely weak – dying, in fact – god and Kyri its only remaining true Justiciar. Master Wieran’s focus made sense; he was making use of the power of Terian, acknowledged by all to be one of the most powerful of all gods. If the true adversary’s goals were in any way like Wieran’s, how could they be served through a focus on such a weakened deity?

Again, here I had to scatter the clues to the answer in a way that did not draw attention to them, these clues being: 1) that Myrionar was considered a true ally of, and connected to, other much more powerful gods including Terian, Chromaias, and the Dragon Gods, among others, and 2) that Myrionar had sworn its oath to Kyri “on the very power of the gods”.

These clues are, of course, also clues to the solution of the problem, to the way in which Kyri and her friends can successfully oppose their enemy, and most importantly to how Kyri herself can confront something which has obviously worked to weaken and corrupt the entirety of her church to the point that only one temple, one set of priests, and one Justiciar remain.

The single largest clue to the entire plot, though, was shown early in Phoenix in Shadow, during the short discussion with the Wanderer, and encapsulated best in this simple exchange:

Kyri stared at him, anger, concern, and confusion making a nauseating mix in her gut. “What do you mean?” She made a leap of intuition. “A prophecy. You have a prophecy.”

For a moment, that smile returned, sharp and lopsided, too knowing yet edged with sadness. “Not… precisely. Though, perhaps, close enough for your purposes.”

That quote above shows one of the other problems of writing this kind of story. From my point of view, I’m practically screaming the answer to what’s going on. I had to hope that with it being in the middle of other discussion, and a full book and a half away from the real beginning of the finale, the reader wouldn’t really sit down and start picking away at that. Judging from the reactions, that hope was generally justified; I didn’t have any of my beta readers, or later readers, immediately write to me and tell me “Oh, I know what that means!”.

It’s hard for an author to know what’s too obvious – or too subtle – because we know way, way too much about what’s going on, and what seems to be a subtle clue to us may be utterly opaque to the reader. Alternatively, if we don’t realize what frame of mind the reader may be in at a given point, something we think was subtle turns out to be a dead giveaway surrounded by flashing lights. Trying to minimize either of these mistakes is one of the reasons writers have beta readers.

I should note that this “sleight of mind” approach is in no way limited to the major themes/plots/resolution of the trilogy. Two of my favorite examples within The Balanced Sword were in Phoenix in Shadow, specifically the way in which Kalshae was defeated, and shortly thereafter the defeat of Sanamaveridion. Both of these were set up early in the novel, by relatively offhanded events, and then built on with a few seemingly-unrelated facts to allow the resolution that we see. There are other such tricks in the final battle of Phoenix Ascendant.

It is often important for the readers to know something that the main characters don’t, of course, and at the end of Phoenix in Shadow the readers witness an event that shows that the Big Bad is not, in fact, Viedraverion at all, but something else using his face and identity, something that Miri calls “Lightslayer”. Miri’s memory of this encounter is erased, so the readers now have the tension of knowing that our heroes are wrong about their adversary’s identity, and wondering when – and how – they will have a chance to find out their mistake.

 

Really, REALLY Big Spoilers for the End of the Trilogy so if you have read the rest but don’t want to be spoiled on the end STOP!

 

That forgotten confrontation with Miri – along with a few other clues including visual description – can allow some readers to figure out just what the Big Bad is, especially if they happen to have read Paradigms Lost, my urban fantasy novel. The antagonist’s nature is referred to in all three novels, and his name mentioned early on in both Phoenix in Shadow and Phoenix Ascendant well before “the reveal” happens, but – as with the other such facts – buried amidst other information that, I hoped, would not make their presence obvious. In fact, the reveal is a two-stage one and the second and final stage happens when the antagonist speaks a line which – for those who understand what it implies – is possibly the most chilling in the entire trilogy:

“You know me? Oh, child, you have not yet asked my name.”

Of course, if most readers find that line (in context) has no impact, it means I failed on the setup – that the hints I gave were entirely missed, not merely obscured. I devoutly hope that isn’t the case, but – as I mentioned earlier – telling what’s obvious and what isn’t is one of the hardest parts of this job.

From the above, probably anyone who has read Paradigms Lost can already guess the true identity of the antagonist, even without reading any of the trilogy: the only villain that would fit the profile would be Virigar, the Werewolf King, the being whom all the other monsters in the book fear. In Phoenix Ascendant, we get to see what he’s like when he isn’t playing the game to fit the vastly lower-magic world that Jason Wood inhabits.

But important as the secret of the villain’s identity, and even his plan, is, the most difficult sleight of mind to pull off was the nature of the solution – of how and why Kyri, who in no way compares in power or resources with her opponent, could ultimately undo his plans and defeat him. And again, that answer comes back to the clues of the nature of the gods and their commitments, to the oath that Myrionar swore, and to the Wanderer’s implication of something that isn’t a prophecy… yet might as well be one.  Myrionar is weak, dying, and cannot in any way match her opponent; Kyri is mortal and even less capable of doing so; and those two facts are precisely the keys to the Big Bad’s plan. Yet, ultimately, they – and the villain’s own nature – are what turn the tables.

Depending on how carefully the prior parts of this essay were read, the reader may already have guessed that, somehow, time travel must be involved. The Wanderer doesn’t have a prophecy, he’s been told what will happen – by someone who has been there, to the future – and doesn’t dare tamper with what he knows is supposed to happen because all the current plans depend on those events.

Thus, also, Myrionar’s reluctance: Myrionar can’t change these events, no matter how much it might want to, because it knows the events happened, and the only way to spring the trap that Myrionar, Khoros, the Wanderer and even the other gods have set for the Big Bad is to let everything play out to a very particular point.  The Wanderer even emphasized this by describing how such things could go wrong even with the most well-meaning of actions. Ultimately, when Kyri suddenly realizes why Virigar’s own plan gives her the key to her own survival and victory, the reader should be only a half-second behind her revelation.

The existence of all these carefully-laid trails of clues and answers doesn’t mean, of course, that I don’t leave any genuine mysteries. The final part of the confrontation between Virigar and Kyri certainly has an event that Virigar understands, but no one else (except, possibly, Khoros) does, showing that some things lie beyond the easy explanation of the gods and those who witness the events. The world of Zarathan is a very large one; I have been working on the world itself for nearly 40 years now. There are still mysteries, large and small, to be unraveled – what will Kyri and Tobimar and Poplock do now? Whence has Master Wieran fled? What, exactly, did the Five do that ultimately sent Kerlamion and the Black City back to the Hells? What did Kyri’s sister Urelle find in her adventures with the young Camp-Bel warrior, and did Aunt Victoria find her in time to help? What, ultimately, is Virigar’s fate?

One day I hope to answer all of those questions, and you can be sure that each of the books will contain more than a little sleight of mind, to keep the reader guessing and surprised – yet, at the same time, reassured by the truths revealed that even this fictional world makes sense to those within… and those without.

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Phoenix Ascendant: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Like him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Robert J. Sawyer is one of the most prolific and celebrated modern authors of science fiction (with Hugo, Nebula and Campbell awards among others to his name), but recently Sawyer took some time between books. It was not time idly spent, as Sawyer relates in this Big Idea: It laid much of the groundwork for his newest novel, Quantum Night.

ROBERT J. SAWYER:

I wrote the first paragraph of Quantum Night on September 11, 2012—and the next day, my younger brother Alan got in touch to say he was dying of lung cancer.

I finished my work on the novel, returning the marked-up page proofs to the publisher, on November 30, 2015. My 90-year-old mother, then already in intensive care, died a week later.

There are three years between the beginning and end dates. With a two-decade track record of writing a book a year, that struck me (and my accountant!) as crazy. But my brother’s illness and death took a lot out of me, and for most of 2013, I wasn’t up for doing anything other than just reading.

And read I did, working slowly but surely toward the core idea for Quantum Night. I started with an absolutely riveting book called Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty. Its author, Roy F. Baumeister, tries to make psychological and evolutionary sense of our basest instincts.

Next, I tackled Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Millions into the Abyss by Laurence Rees. With all due respect to the corollaries to Godwin’s law, it seemed to me that the Hitlerian template was horribly commonplace: a handful of psychopathic manipulators whipping up mindless followers.

And perhaps, it occurred to me, they were literally mindless: exemplars of the entities proposed in Australian philosopher David Chalmers’s thought experiment about beings externally indistinguishable from you or me but with no inner life, creatures he termed “philosopher’s zombies.”

I’ve long been familiar with the work of Oxford physicist Sir Roger Penrose and his collaborator Stuart Hameroff, which asserts that consciousness arises from electrons in quantum superposition in little doodads called tubulin dimers within neurons (see, for instance, Penrose’s classic Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness).

Mashing up my reading about the nature of evil with Penrose and Hameroff’s theory led me to the central conceit of my novel, namely that human consciousness comes in three successively more complex varieties, based on the number of electrons that are in quantum superposition in each tubulin dimer.

If one electron is in superposition, I say the person is a philosopher’s zombie—the lights are on, but nobody is home.

If two electrons are in superposition, there is indeed self-awareness and an inner life, but such individuals literally think only about themselves; they have no empathy and are therefore psychopaths (callous manipulators, although not necessarily violent).

And if three electrons are in superposition, then there is a reflection upon the inner life—not just consciousness but conscience.

My novel proposes that each cohort is half the size of the one before: the majority of humans are philosopher’s zombies; a large minority are psychopaths, and only a precious few are empathetic beings.

Of course, all my speculation is wrapped up in a very human story about a man who has transitioned through all three quantum states during a difficult life and is now trying to come to terms with the things he did while devoid of conscience.

While pulling all this together, I consulted with some of the world’s leading thinkers on the science of consciousness (including Hameroff and Chalmers), psychopathy (including Kevin Dutton, author of The Wisdom of Psychopaths), and quantum physics (including John Gribbin, the author of In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat). My hat is off to them, and all the others who helped me on this journey.

My late mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Ultimately, despite its exploration of why evil exists, my novel does say something nice about the human condition; in the end, Quantum Night is an optimistic book. After all, it’s always darkest before the dawn.

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Quantum Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jason LaPier

What’s the Big Idea for Jason LaPier and his novel Unclear Skies? It’s simple: Heroes! Who maybe aren’t so much heroes. At least, not at first.

JASON LaPIER:

In science fiction and fantasy, we often encounter a character who is somehow special, whether imbued with some extraordinary trait, endowed with a remarkable skill, or just plain abnormal. They may start off as a commoner, but over the course of the story their talents or gifts are unlocked. Sometimes they are portrayed as a “chosen one”, and sometimes they’re forced to become a leader by the nature of their advantages. While I love a lot of these stories, in my series “The Dome Trilogy”, I was looking for much less heroic heroes. I was looking to take an average person, an “everyman”, and drag them through the excursion of what is more or less a hero cycle without the advantages that a hero has.

While I absolutely appreciate speculative fiction with a message, I cannot deny that the entertainment value of SF/F largely lies in escapism. We read and watch to experience worlds, events, technologies, and people other than what we know in real life, other than what is possible in real life, to give ourselves a break from the day-to-day, and to allow us the fun of wallowing in full-blown imagination.

And yet, even if the fiction is an escape from real life, we find immersion so much easier if the characters are relatable in some way. In Young Adult fiction, the protagonist is often an odd kid, someone who feels like they don’t fit in, and then eventually discovers they have a special power or talent. Younger readers know what it’s like not to fit in, because every kid feels that way at some point; a search for identity is part of the process of growing up. And adult readers remember what that was like as well, which is why so many can enjoy YA as much as their own children do.

The challenge with making an adult character develop into a hero is that they’ve already grown past that age of discovery and identity establishment. Sure, one can always learn new skills, but it doesn’t feel the same as the bloom of a gift during puberty. It’s a lot more practice, with incremental improvements. It’s work. And yet, adults in the real world still go through identity crises just as much as teens. So when a story is able to take an adult who seems lost in their life and make them into a hero, even a Chosen One, it resonates.

Take Neo from the film, The Matrix, for example. At the start of the story, he is merely Thomas Anderson, a corporate programmer, a drone. Outside of the office he’s a loner, scouring the net for some hidden meaning to his life that he can feel but can’t put his finger on. When he’s rescued, he’s reborn. His whole world changes, and he has the power – and the calling – to save it. It’s a textbook hero’s journey.

Now let’s take a look at a classic anti-hero: Arthur Dent, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Arthur is also a directionless, middle-aged adult. His reality is suddenly expanded by a thousandfold when he discovers his friend is an alien and they escape Earth’s destruction by hitching a ride aboard a spaceship. But Arthur never unlocks special powers. He never saves anyone or anything. He bumbles through a series of adventures wearing a bathrobe (the only clothing he owns), somehow managing to stay alive. His most remarkable trait is his unremarkableness.

In “The Dome Trilogy”, I wanted a couple of characters in between. “Jax” Jackson lives most of his life in a sterilized exoplanetary colony. He’s a drone like everyone he knows, a detached, late-20s adult. He has the aptitude to be better than he is, but not the drive. Like Arthur Dent, Jax has his world turned upside-down by events that are far beyond his control, practically beyond his scope of reality. In the first book of the series, Unexpected Rain, an entire block of dome inhabitants suffocates while Jax is on duty as a life support operator – a mindless, push-button job – and he is charged with their murders.

From there, Jax has to awaken the intellect that had been shelved – not locked away, not latent, not even undiscovered, but simply abandoned due to apathy. He’s paired up with the one cop who believes he may be innocent, Officer Stanford Runstom. By contrast, Runstom is driven, both by personal ambition and a sense of justice. He’s a wannabe hero who has been held back by the system and his heritage.

In the newly released second novel of the trilogy, Unclear Skies, this trend continues for these two characters. Jax is still on the run, eking out a living by finding odd jobs on a remote independent moon. Here the things that he finds run-of-the-mill – what would be outdated technology back in the domes – is remarkable to a population that is behind the times. His mundane skills at troubleshooting are mythical in this environment, and in fact could be life-saving.

Meanwhile Stanford Runstom, the officer that dreamt of becoming a detective, is “promoted” to a public relations post. Somewhat condescendingly, his new department praises his simple honesty, hoping to impress clients with a straight-talker. And yet even while working for the marketing department, Runstom can’t help but fall back on his detective aspirations when trouble arises.

My hope is that between these two characters, there is something of non-sci-fi life that readers can relate to. I personally remember what it’s like to be lost in my 20s like Jax, feeling as though I should have discovered my purpose by then, but still just trudging through each day. And likewise, to discover a passion for something as Runstom has, to put everything into it, only to see it diverted time and time again. These are the trials of adult life in the 21st century, extrapolated into the 27th century, with some murder thrown in for thrills and interstellar travel thrown in for escapism value.

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Unclear Skies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Google Play|iTunes|Kobo

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The Big Idea: Dobromir Harrison

Vampires! Tokyo! Rachel! Dobromir Harrison! Not necessarily in that order!

DOBROMIR HARRISON:

I had just started writing my first draft of Rachel, but something bothered me:

I was writing a vampire book.

I mean, vampires are dead, right? Neil Gaiman said so, and he knows the publishing world a whole lot better than I do.

I was troubled but, when it came down to it, I had a story about a character I couldn’t stop thinking about.

For the most part, Rachel herself kept me going. She was so full of (un)life I had to keep writing just to see what new torments I could put her through.

But the story needed something else to make it leap off the page and feel real.

Rachel actually came into being in Thailand. I lived there for a while and just happened to drive past a karaoke bar called Sweet Vampires. The name made me laugh (it didn’t look in any way dark or gothic) and got me thinking about this woman who was a monster, and she lived in Thailand, a foreigner like myself, not quite fitting-in but not new to the place. What would she do there? How would she struggle to get by? Did she even speak the language? How would she avoid the sun? What dangers would she face? Who would she prey on?

Well, the idea went on the backburner until I moved to Tokyo. That was where she found her true home, and I actually sat down and started writing her adventures.

On the surface, it was perfect! The world’s largest city, a wealth of history and culture spread out for her to feed from. Neon lights and skyscrapers over a maze of old ramen shops and those little places that sell personal seals for stamping documents. But something was still missing. Rachel had yet to find her place there.

Sometimes, a single image can inspire. I remember going for a walk one night, somewhere on the city outskirts, and seeing a factory with a single light on in one of the upstairs rooms. Tokyo is full of abandoned buildings, and it set my imagination ablaze. I thought of someone living in a place like that. Maybe some kind of monster, creeping among the empty, decrepit buildings on the edge of civilized society.

It was the hook I needed. I started to see the city through her eyes: a place that was, paradoxically, safe to live in, but with enough dark alleys and abandoned buildings where a monster could hide and… well, not thrive, but just about get by.

If vampires were dead, Tokyo certainly wasn’t. But how to sell it to an audience who probably hadn’t been there? I didn’t want it to be a cliché, all samurai swords and Blade Runner aesthetics. It was a city I loved, and I felt the story would benefit from taking place in somewhere lived-in and real.

So I set it in places I knew, where I’d lived. I moved a lot of the action to the suburbs, like Tokorozawa, about forty minutes out of Tokyo by train. Or the little neighborhood of Otsuka, with its small foreign population and love hotels. Or northwest of the city, into the grey expanse of Saitama, places where monsters may really hide – poorer, industrial suburbs that I hoped would be alien, yet accessible to readers. And where would a monster like Rachel spend her time? Someone damaged and violent like her? Lonely, homeless and restless.

Getting excited about the setting helped the story flow, so then I turned to Rachel’s life in Japan. Like myself, she was an outsider, someone to explain things to the reader, but she wasn’t clueless. Early drafts were distinguished by her misunderstanding things, and asking for words to be explained, until I realized she would probably speak Japanese perfectly well after living there for a hundred years. That changed a lot of what I wrote, and also led to one of my favorite parts, when a Japanese woman starts teaching her the language back in the Meiji Era.

I had the character and setting, and the story was starting to take shape, but I struggled with how to explain things to someone who wasn’t familiar with the language or culture. Some of it was straightforward, like changing “Heiwa Dori” to “Heiwa Street”, though I left the street name itself untranslated (“heiwa” means “peace”, so it’s literally “Peace Street”, also where I used to live!) I left words like “geta” (traditional wooden shoes) just as they are, as I felt they added flavor and the writing makes it clear they’re a type of footwear. And a “love hotel” is pretty self-explanatory, right?

One of the biggest issues came during editing, when I realized people wouldn’t necessarily know how to pronounce the name of Rachel’s girlfriend, Yoshie. Someone unfamiliar with Japanese syllables might say “Yo-shee”, whereas it’s actually “Yo-shee-ay” and “Yoshi” is a nickname she uses. Going back and forth between “Yoshie” and “Yoshi” just looked like I was making typos, so I just kept it as Yoshi for the most part, hoping no one would think of the little green dinosaur from Mario (not the best imagery for a gritty horror novel).

It was a delicate balancing-act, spicing the text with enough flavor, and writing from the perspective of someone experienced and slightly jaded with living in Japan, but also bringing readers in with the sights and sounds and smells of a different culture. In the end, I feel it worked well and made the perfect backdrop to a story of alienation and revenge. The city as “safe haven and prison”, as the talented Lillian Cohen-Moore wrote for the back cover copy.

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Rachel: Amazon|Barnes & Noble

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