Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jim C. Hines

Codex Born, the latest book in Jim C. Hines’ “Magic Ex Libris”series, is out today. See the cover? Nice, right? Well, Jim wants to talk to you about it. Or more specifically, about the character on it — and what she means to the book, and to the fantasy genre, and for other things as well.

JIM C. HINES:

Lena Greenwood, the woman seen holding a wooden bokken on the cover of the U. S. edition of Codex Born, is problematic as hell.

In Libriomancer, Lena is introduced as our typical ass-kicking, vampire-slaying urban fantasy-type heroine. While not physically cloned from Buffy Summers stock—Lena is not white, blonde, or thin—she does toss quips and pound bad guys with the best of them. She’s strong, confident, attractive, and quite sexual. In chapter one, she saves geek-librarian-wizard Isaac Vainio’s butt from some sparkling vampires and begins flirting with him shortly thereafter.

For Isaac, it’s like a dream come true. Aside from the part where he got beat up by sparklers. But it’s a dream that requires a closer look.

This series is all about the love of reading and the magic of books, a world where libriomancers literally reach into the pages to create light-sabers and shrinking potions and invisibility cloaks and all manner of awesomeness. But loving something doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to its faults.

Our genre doesn’t have the best record when it comes to our treatment of women as authors, as readers, and as characters. We’re slowly moving past the days of chain mail bikinis and semi-clad damsels draped at the hero’s feet, but we’re not there yet. Books by male authors are reviewed more often. Geek girls are challenged to prove their worthiness, as if geekiness is supposed to be an honor reserved for men alone. And female characters—even “strong” women—continue to be sexualized and fetishized, both on the covers and in the pages.

Lena Greenwood was born via libriomancy, pulled from the pages of a book called Nymphs of Neptune, a fictional title with sensibilities similar to John Norman’s Gor novels. Lena is a dryad, explicitly written as a sexual fantasy. Her personality and preferences are shaped by the desires of her lover.

You can see where this gets problematic?

Codex Born gave me the chance to tell more of Lena’s story, from her emergence into our world to her first “relationship” to her discovery of her true nature. It’s traumatic, to say the least:

“I’m not really a person, am I?” My hair, my skin, my favorite flavor of ice cream, everything about me was a reflection of someone else’s desires.

I sat amidst a circle of Nidhi’s comic books. Ridiculously clothed women stared up at me from the pages, bodies contorted into bone-bending poses that better displayed their exaggerated curves.

“When I was born, I looked for the other dryads of my grove. For my sisters.” I picked up a Red Sonja comic. “I’ve finally found them.”

Forcing women into narrow standards defined primarily by men’s desires is hardly a new idea. I wanted to make it explicit.

I like the badass heroine trope. I like well-written fight scenes spiced with smart banter. But we’ve taken that trope in some narrow and unhealthy directions. For one example, see author Seanan McGuire’s wonderful post Things I Will Not Do To My Characters. Ever.

Last night, I was asked—in so many words—when either Toby or one of the Price girls was finally going to be raped … it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.

Because it’s not enough to have strong heroines—they also need to be broken, generally in a sexual way. Part of the fetishized appeal is that these powerful women still aren’t as powerful as a man. That no matter how strong a woman is, I, the man, could still have her.

That’s where Lena Greenwood comes from, and it’s an ugly place. Ugly for her, ugly for Isaac, and hopefully ugly for the reader as well. In Nymphs of Neptune, Lena was created explicitly for the consumption of men. In Codex Born, she has to learn how to adapt, how to exist within the limits of her nature, and to seek out what freedom she can.

I won’t claim to have written her story perfectly. Easy answers would have been unrealistic. I wanted the struggle. I wanted the discomfort. I wanted readers to question not just the portrayal of Lena, but of so many other literary characters.

Of course, being me, I also wanted the book to have elements of fun and humor. Lena takes shameless advantage of her nature. Her physical body is defined by the description in Nymphs of Neptune. Since she can’t gain or lose weight, she routinely enjoys ice cream sundaes for dinner or ridiculously topped waffles. Her connection to her tree and other plants allows her to grow a garden both beautiful and dangerous. (Do not mess with her rosebushes!) Also, she can kill you with a toothpick.

But in the end, Lena is problematic. So are some of the choices I make about her character and her interactions. I’ve had people ask why I would even attempt to write a character like that, and there are times when I’m struggling with the books that I ask myself the same question.

The answer is that my genre is already creating these characters. I’m simply trying, to the best of my ability, to challenge that trend.

—-

Codex Born: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

Ladies and gentlemen, Chuck Wendig has an unusual answer for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as it relates to his novel Under the Empyrean Sky. Do you dare learn its terrible secrets? Sure, you dare. That’s why you’re here.

CHUCK WENDIG:

Everyone always asks where you get your ideas or where the idea for a particular book came from and honestly, this one? Under the Empyrean Sky?

It started as a joke.

I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.

One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”

I wrote:

The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!

See, right there, even in the post, I started to think, Maybe there’s something here. I opened up the giant time-eater that is Google and on a lark did some research on corn. And what I found there was both pretty cool and pretty scary. For instance:

Corn is in 75% of the processed food products in the grocery store. You look at the ingredients on the back of the box and some of them are the Corn you know (corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal), but many are the Corn you jolly well didn’t know (dextrose, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, calcum citrate, white vinegar, vanilla extract, and a couple other dozen unusual suspects).

We also feed it to most of our factory-farm livestock. It’s not what cows like to eat, but we make ‘em eat it anyway, and then they get sick, and then we pump ‘em full of antiobiotics, and then they create superbugs, and then we give them new antibiotics and, well.

We’re starting to feed corn to salmon. Because if there’s one thing the salmon have always wanted, it’s buttery corn on the cob. (Now they just need teeth!)

Corn yields are up 500% in the last century. The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world. AND PROBABLY THE GALAXY.

In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of cornfields. Which yielded over $60 billion in cash receipts from sales.

Corn can make fuel (ethanol). It can be used to make plastic.

Corn has almost double the number of genes that humans have.

In the documentary King Corn, the filmmakers learn that their own human DNA actually has a little bit of corn DNA in it.

Regardless of whether this leans more toward pretty cool or more toward pretty scary, it paints a fascinating picture—and suddenly, a corn-fed agricultural dystopia starts to make sense.

Looking into corn means looking into genetically-modified food—which is itself not a demon, but the behaviors of a GMO company like Monsanto certainly (to quote Grosse Pointe Blank) “reads like a demon’s resume.” Then you start to realize that prices for real fruits and vegetables have gone up 20-30% while corn-based processed food products like soda have gone down in price by 20-30%. Even if GMOs themselves aren’t directly contributing to health problems the overabundance of corn remains freaky.

This all started as a joke, but suddenly I wasn’t laughing.

All of this research was happening at an interesting time, too—we hadn’t yet gotten to Occupy Wall Street yet, but we were hip-deep in an economic recession and heard rumblings about class inequality. Marriage was a big issue, too—we had the party of small government ostensibly disproving that thesis and trying to force government to define marriage in a very narrow, very troubling way.

Things in the world were shaking up.

Plus, on a personal level, holy shit, my wife was pregnant.

And suddenly that put a lot of things in focus. I became more concerned about what was in our food (because I was going to be feeding it to a tiny human who probably needed something better than a corn-based diet). I became troubled by the world and the inequality in it. I became interested too in writing a book my son could one day read (I won’t let him read Blackbirds until he’s 37.)

The story bloomed fully-formed in my brain. And in the month prior to his birth and just after, I wrote my ass off and produced a manuscript I initially called Popcorn—it was meant to be a fun young adult action-adventure that also had a subversive twist because it was set in a sunny dustbowl agricultural dystopia where corn was everything and all corn was a (literally) bloodthirsty breed called Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The hyper-rich (the Empyrean) lived in big floating flotillas in the sky while the rest of the world toiled away in the rainless, pollen-caked Heartland below. (Author John Hornor Jacobs calls it The Grapes of Wrath meets Star Wars, which isn’t inaccurate.)

Cancer was everywhere. Animals were few and far between. Vegetables were practically non-existent and the food they ate was industrially produced (though hey, they sometimes eat shuck rats, too). Some humans had begun to demonstrate signs of the Blight—where they manifested actual plant matter growing over their existing limbs (leafy fingers, thorny teeth, vines for arms).

Marriage was forced in a ceremony called an Obligation—at the age of 17, the Empyrean decided which boys would marry which girls and that was that. If you were gay, too damn bad. If you wanted to remain unmarried, hey, as they are wont to say in the first book: That’s life in the Heartland.

But it couldn’t just be life in the Heartland. Fiction is about change. About subverting and destroying the status quo. A story isn’t a straight line. It’s about the jagged peaks and vertiginous valleys and all the complicated kinks and hooks.

And so this book is about seeing a world well past the point of no return and finding the hope both in their world and ours. It’s about being angry and making a change. The teens in the book—part of a scavenging crew from a town called Boxelder—discover a secret garden of real vegetables, and the discovery of that garden leads them on a journey through the blood-hungry corn, to dead-towns and subterranean places where they have to deal with Blighted Heartlanders and broken hearts, with hobo armies and oppressive Empyreans, and with the dark secrets their own families and fellow townsfolk possess…

What began as a joke became a book.

Fiction is funny that way, I guess.

—-

Under the Empyrean Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s page. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jason M. Hough

We steadily march into the future — but is the march actually as steady as it looks, or even as steady as we wish it were? It’s a thought Jason M. Hough has considered, particularly in relation to his “Dire Earth” series, of which The Darwin Elevator is the first installment. He’s here to give some perspective on the parade of progress.

JASON M. HOUGH:

My Big Idea grew out of a friend’s offhand remark: “Sci-fi often gets the technology right and the date wrong.”

Examples are legion: Blade Runner (and the novel it’s based on) takes place in 2019, just a few years from now. Skynet becomes self-aware in 1997, already sixteen years behind us. 2001 takes place in… well, you get the idea. The point is science fiction often dreams big and dates optimistically. This nagged at me like a persistent fly for years after my friend’s original comment.

As I started worldbuilding for the Dire Earth series, my first thought was to simply move the dates out. Add a little breathing room. With one keystroke I changed 2083 to 2283 and it felt… right. And yet, also wrong. Certainly by then we’d have some amazing stuff, wouldn’t we? I immediately wanted to rework all my plans and ramp up the tech accordingly. But that would just put me back in the trap my friend had warned of, and besides, I started to see a different angle to the wisdom of his observation. I began to wonder what would happen if our current breakneck pace of technological advancement slowed to a crawl, or even backtracked in some areas. A low-tech vision of the future, if you will.

This might be a tough sell to some sci-fi readers, but it’s not so hard to believe. We’re already seeing the erosion of Moore’s Law (the “law” that transistor density in microchips will double every two years). Breakthroughs in energy and medicine never seem to make it to market. Today roughly half of this country holds a rather pessimistic view of science and technology, and they elect public officials that share this perspective. I started to explore what would happen if that mentality continued to grow. In other words, what if politics and culture advanced but science and technology stagnated for a while? Maybe even a long while?

Ultimately my Big Idea was to imagine our technological advancement into the future not as an ever-increasing curve, but more like a pendulum with the weight initially held back by these factors. In the novel’s hinted-at backstory there are references to the unfulfilled promises of technology, and the societal backlash that came with that. Despite taking place over 200 years from now, tech has only made modest advancements beyond where we are now.

Then comes the spark that finally lets the pendulum swing toward major progress. An extraterrestrial ship, entirely automated, constructs a space elevator that makes landfall in Darwin, Australia. This event triggers an almost overnight resurgence in interest for technology, space exploration, and of course the deeper implications of alien life. We start to exploit the device once our initial shock wears off, building space stations along its length and the infrastructure needed to support such efforts on the ground around it. I’d always had this moment in the backstory, but foisting it upon a world so jaded actually served to amplify the change it unleashes upon the book’s main setting. The sleepy beach town of Darwin is suddenly the equivalent of Cape Canaveral, Houston, and Silicon Valley all rolled into one. Things are, quite literally, looking up.

Back swings the pendulum. Now that I’d given the world a wake-up call, I wanted to knock them back the other direction (I’m mean like that). Just twelve years later a pandemic disease, designed by the same aliens that gave us the Elevator, renders most of the planet uninhabitable. In fact, the aliens only left us with this tiny patch of land around the Darwin Elevator upon which to survive. The bulk of our already-meager brain trust dies out, and most of the world’s critical infrastructure and manufacturing capability languishes unattended outside the safe zone. In our culture of throwaway devices and planned obsolescence, things get dire pretty damn quick. For me it was both challenging and exhilarating to write this world. It’s one thing to tackle an apocalyptic event, but to thrust something like that upon a populace that had just tasted hope and wonder… such a psyche was difficult to put myself into, and yet I loved the characters this pendulum scenario produced.

The main character Skyler, for example, embodies a certain amount of “fool me twice” apathy. Born into a world of technological malaise, he becomes an adult around the same time the alien space elevator arrives. Everything changes at a dizzying pace while he himself is earning his wings to fly in the Dutch Air Force.

Then the disease hits, sending humanity to the mat like a haymaker, down for the count. Only Darwin is safe, but Skyler… Skyler is an ultra-rare immune. Once he reaches Darwin he realizes he’s one of the few people who can leave.

And so the Elevator becomes a metaphor for society’s reliance on technology, seen through the eyes of someone who doesn’t need it at all. Skyler can’t bring himself to just walk away, though. I loved writing his chapters, and this was a big reason why. The conflict within him, masked by his apathy and—let’s be honest—poor leadership skills, made him a great lens through which to filter the story. Deep down he knows that humanity cannot survive simply by maintaining the status quo. His generation is the first in a long time that has tasted an explosion of progress, and that lies at the heart of what drives him. The year is 2283, and he wants our species to live up to that no matter what our mysterious visitors have in store.

—-

The Darwin Elevator: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Adam Schrager

I’ve known Adam Schrager since we were both college newspaper editors (me at University of Chicago, he at Michigan). While I eventually abandoned journalism for a career of making things up for a living, Adam’s kept at it, finding fascination in real life stories as an investigative reporter. In his latest book, The Sixteenth Rail, Adam uses those journalism skills to tell the story of one of the great crime dramas of the 20th century, and how it was solved — by science.

ADAM SCHRAGER:

I remain convinced I could have solved one of the great criminal mysteries of all time if my older sisters had not complained to my parents that I was being annoying.

It was 1977 and we were traveling along the west coast, where five-plus years earlier a man named D.B. Cooper, wearing a dark suit, had parachuted out of a 727 airplane with a $200,000 ransom. I had brought a well-worn, green, hard cover book chronicling the country’s top crimes on our family trip and to this aspiring 7-year-old detective, every man I saw in a dark suit was a lead worth calling 9-1-1 to report.

The fact that in the nearly six years since the hijacking, he had likely changed outfits was lost on me. However what I retained from that vacation, besides the fact that my sisters were not as enterprising as me, was a vivid memory of the chapter chronicling the kidnapping of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. (a.k.a. “The World’s Baby”).

The son of the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean was snatched from his nursery late on the night of March 1, 1932. The police report chronicled the complete list of evidence as: a ransom note, a standard carpenter’s chisel and a homemade, three-piece, sectional ladder.

Lindbergh Sr. was quite simply the most popular man in the world at the time, his extraordinary feat led to his receiving 3.5 million letters within weeks of his landing in Paris. His friend Fitzhugh Green wrote, “There was a definite phenomenon of Lindbergh quite the like of which the world had never seen.”

After lead after lead evaporated and the maze of theories led to dead end after dead end, the pressure to solve the crime grew exponentially when the 20-month-old boy was found dead. “There can be no immunity now,” moviegoers heard on the newsreel in the summer of 1932. “It is up to America to find the perpetrator of this crime or it is to be America’s shame forever.”

In his own kitchen in Madison, Wisconsin, a soft-spoken, balding, government scientist looked across the table at his own young son, just 48 days older than Charles Jr., and “I shuddered.” Unlike the rest of America though, Arthur Koehler’s next reaction was less predictable.

“I grew excited,” he would later tell The Saturday Evening Post. “You see, that ladder, because it was made of wood, seemed just like a daring challenge.”

Arthur Koehler had literally written the book on wood, “The Properties and Uses of Wood,” released in 1924. He was employed by the Forest Products Laboratory, the world’s pre-eminent research laboratory into trees and wood, and in that context, he felt he could help investigators as it pertained to what would become the single most recognizable piece of criminal evidence until the bloody glove in the O.J. Simpson trial seven decades later.

As a reporter, I’m always fascinated by people who describe themselves as ordinary and yet, when they’re placed in extraordinary situations, they act extraordinarily. Side note, my crime fighting stalled out as did my desire to play left field for the Chicago Cubs so as we are wont to say in journalism, “Those who can’t, write about those who can.”

Nearly a year after the crime was committed, Koehler was asked by the FBI and the New Jersey State Police to see if he could make the wooden witness talk. Unlike the convenience of the 60-minute episodes of CSI and other television programs of its ilk, the investigation was tedious, the research meticulous and the time consumed lengthy.

Over the course of the next year and a half, he would discover microscopic anomalies on two of the ladder’s rails, track them to the lumber yard in South Carolina where they were machine-planed, and then to the New York mill where the lumber was sold, only to hit a dead-end when it was revealed the store did not keep sales records.

But his more important discovery was his analysis of Rail No. 16, the upper-left hand section of the ladder. Unlike every other part of the ladder, it was hand-planed on both ends, instead of being machine-planed. The piece also had previous nail holes, none of which had any rust around them, leading Koehler to tell investigators that the piece likely came from the inside of a building, maybe even an attic.

When Bruno Richard Hauptmann was arrested in September, 1934 after spending one of the bills used to pay the ransom and a gas station clerk wrote down his license plate number. Detectives found more of the ransom money in Hauptmann’s home and garage and, as it relates to the ladder, a ripped up board in his attic.

Using technology known to few at the time, Koehler analyzed the tree rings from the board in the attic, compared it to the 16th rail and concluded they matched. This was four years before the first tree-ring laboratory would be created at the University of Arizona and the principle that one ring would represent a year in the life of that tree was not commonly known.

In fact, when prosecutors sought to call Koehler as a witness in Hauptmann’s trial, the defense counsel protested, saying “There’s no such animal known among men as an expert on wood.” Even the government lawyers didn’t understand Koehler’s science, but knew his testimony would “wrap the kidnap ladder right around Hauptmann’s neck.”

His testimony wowed the worldwide media collected to cover what H.L. Mencken called, “the greatest story since the Resurrection.” Koehler was described as “Sherlock Holmes in the witness box,” and The New York Post, realizing the importance of his testimony, presciently wrote: “The Hauptmann trial may go down in legal history less as the most sensational case of its time than as the case which brought legal recognition to the wood expert on a par with handwriting, fingerprint and ballistic experts.”

And that’s the big idea of Arthur Koehler, who can honestly be called the father of forensic botany. He was the final prosecution witness in the trial of the century, one which led the FBI and law enforcement agencies worldwide to embrace scientific methods as aids in solving crimes. It’s standard fare now to see DNA tests, lab results, scientific analysis in not just the sensational trials, but the every-day criminal case as well.

“While a scientist must be truthful in his observations,” Koehler told NBC Radio after the guilty verdict was announced, “he must also have the capacity to let his imagination wander along restricted channels so as to realize the possibilities to which those observations may lead. This is particularly true in scientific detective work, because the observations are of little value unless clues can be properly interpreted and followed up.”

Specifically, in Arthur Koehler’s case, he was consumed with the fidelity and reliability of trees. “A tree never lies,” he was fond of saving. Not surprisingly, in retirement, he would consult with the creators of the Perry Mason program, one of the first truly successful crime-solving programs on television.

The science of Koehler’s tree-ring testimony withstands all of the conspiracy theories surrounding the Hauptmann trial, but it also leads to a secondary big idea. There remain trees to be analyzed, original data to be explored and studied, and a continuing need for the so-called “classically-trained scientist.”

“Koehler’s legacy,” said Dr. Shirley Graham, who is a curator at the Missouri Botanical Gardens, “was to show how basic descriptive science still has modern value and important applications.”

I hope you agree. Now, I just need to convince my sisters to unplug their ears thirty-plus years later to listen to my latest theory as to where D.B. Cooper might be.

—-

The Sixteenth Rail: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book page. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Chris Kluwe

Chris Kluwe kicks footballs for a living, which is nice work if you can get it, and also ponders life, the universe and everything a whole lot. He additionally has a fine knack for writing things on subjects that apparently people don’t expect NFL punters to be able to think cogently about, which is their problem, not his. He does it with flair (and creative cursing). Some of those things show up in Kluwe’s debut collection, Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies, which Chris sent to me early, and which I enjoyed the heck out of. I even gave it this quote on Twitter: “Chris writes much better than I can punt.” I don’t know if they used it. I’m pretty sure, in fact, that they did not. Bastards. Anyway, here’s Chris.

CHRIS KLUWE:

So those of you who know me probably know me as “that football player guy who also wrote a letter for gay rights with the swears,” or “the crazy person on Twitter John periodically talks with.” For those of you who don’t know me, it turns out I’m also an author! (Trust me, it was completely unintentional.)

Anyways, as someone who is a huge sci-fi fan (and human rights fan), I wanted to send a copy of my book to Scalzi, and he responded most graciously by reading it and asking me to write a Big Idea piece.

I, naturally, completely forgot about it until a couple days ago, because my mind no work goody sometimes. Must be all the massive hits punters take. But not to worry! The esteemed gentleman-scholar of this website has allowed me to remedy the situation, and without further ado, I present the Big Ideas of Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies. (Best title ever, amirite?)

The Big Idea

Sparkleponies is a collection of short stories and essays covering a wide variety of topics, hopefully in an entertaining and educational way (I promise you’ll learn some new swear words at the very least). I frequently describe it as a snapshot into my mind, and the main reason I wrote it as such is because I wanted to show you can’t define a human being with just one label.

When various publishers first approached me about writing a book, the majority of them wanted the standard “football player autobiographical” that everyone churns out once they get even a sniff of attention. You know, the “on x day I did y, and it made me feel z because I gave 120% of all the sports cliches my coach ever taught me about Jesus.” That one.

Well, I’m not a fan of that book, primarily because it plays into the kind of lazy thinking that’s so prevalent in our culture (America in particular). “You’re a football player, so all you can talk about is football.” “You’re gay, so you hate sports and love clothes.” “You’re a woman, so shut up and get in the kitchen, and don’t even think about playing video games with us manly men.”

You, as a person, summed up in the label of someone else’s narrow definition.

This is an utter failure to think, a failure to use your brain for something more than keeping your ears apart (as my mother loves to say). Trying to distill a human being, a complex summation of millions of different experiences, into one easily recognizable slogan or catchphrase, is antithetical to the society I want to live in.

I want to live in a world where people are celebrated for their differences, for their complexity, for their uniqueness, for the widely varied things that make them who they are. I want to live in a world that realizes your job does not define you as a person. I want to live in a world where I can be a football player, a video game nerd, a sci-fi/fantasy geek, an author, a husband and father and brother – all at the same time, because that’s who I am.

Above all, I want to live in a world where people are empathetic enough to understand that we’re not all going to be the same (and that’s okay!), but the only way I have the freedom to live my own life is if everyone else enjoys that same freedom in return. I am not a label, I am a multifaceted creature, just like all the other human beings on this planet, and we all deserve the recognition and ability to make our own choices in life.

This doesn’t work without empathy, though, because you have to realize how to see people as more than just a label, how to put yourself in their shoes. Empathy is a big part of Sparkleponies, because it’s also my belief (as a history and political science major) that societies that don’t practice rational empathy inevitably collapse – either by fomenting conflict from within by oppressing a segment/s of their populace, or seeking conflict from without by taking from others and eventually getting into a fight they can’t win. Civilization has a 100% failure rate in the historical record, and that leads to my second Big Idea in the book.

The Other Big Idea

If, as a species, we don’t understand how to value long term consequences over short term gains, then we will go the way of the dodo and the dinosaur.

A lot of the pieces in Sparkleponies deal with the concept of long term thinking and planning, of looking past your own lifetime to the many other lifetimes that will exist once you’re gone, because if we don’t learn how to look past ourselves, we won’t be able to deal with certain events that crop up on the geologic timescale with alarming regularity. Things like, oh, say, asteroid strikes. Global climate changes. Supervolcano eruptions. Toxic pathogens. And that’s not even getting into what we can do to each other if we don’t understand why pushing that red button is a bad idea.

Sure, these probably won’t happen in our lifetime. We should be safe. But they will happen eventually, I can promise you that, and if we as a species don’t understand how to get off this rock, well, I guess we had a good run. We’ll be a brief flash on some alien astronomer’s telescope, our bones a curiosity to our cockroach successors.

Except I don’t want to live in a world with the mindset of “Oh well, I got mine, everyone else can get fucked” that dies off a couple millennia from now. I want to live in a world where we get out to the stars (even if I never live to see it), a world where we explore our galaxy and all the other galaxies in the universe (even if I never live to see it), a world where we understand the beauty that there’s much out there we don’t know, and probably never will, but it doesn’t stop us from constantly searching for answers.

The only way anyone will ever get to see that world, that science fiction dream we all dream, is if we understand that we have to work together, we have to create a stable society that can stand the test of time, and in order to do so, we have to always consider what consequences will result from our actions. We have to value education and rational thought over entertainment and knee-jerk impulses, otherwise we’re spiraling down that same path every other civilization before us walked.

We also need to not overuse commas, that’s important too, which is perhaps the Biggest Idea of the book.

Enjoy the Absurdities of Life

We’re all we have in a universe doing its level best to kill us every second of our existence. Take a step back and laugh every once in a while. You’ll feel much better about yourself, trust me. I’m on a horse.

—-

Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (via NPR). Visit the book page (which also features an excerpt). Follow the author on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Django Wexler

Genius is a very interesting topic, to be sure, but when it comes to writing a novel, is it in itself enough to make it all work? Or does there need to be more than “genius” to go on? Django Wexler considers this thought, as it applies to his latest work, The Thousand Names.

DJANGO WEXLER:

I am fascinated by the idea of a military genius.

It comes up a lot in the history books, especially those not specifically concerned with military details.  “Napoleon was able to lead France to victory over all of mainland Europe because he was a military genius,” or “Alexander the Great’s genius in battle helped him crush the much larger Persian Empire,” or “The genius of Robert E. Lee helped the South hold off superior Union forces for five years.”

This always bothered me, because it’s not clear what exactly that means.  In the historical wargames I’ve played since my college days, the generals get assigned statistics, but what does Napoleon do so well that he gets a +3 on his attack roll, compared to +1 for Kutusov and -2 for poor Karl Mack?  Does the average foot soldier know that he’s part of some brilliant maneuver, and fight all the harder for it?

When I started to get seriously into history, I went looking for answer, but the search was frustrating.  When you read the maps and campaign histories, it all seems so obvious.  The enemy is strong here and weak here, so you circle around and strike him from behind—presto, you’re a genius!  There was no magic, no dramatic moment when all is suddenly revealed.

But then, if you’re surrounded by the infamous “fog of war,” with nothing but a scribbled report from a scout and a bad map to go on, it probably doesn’t seem that simple.  It’s hard to see the difficulties and the confusion from a map, but a good historian can make you feel it.  And it was after reading a particularly good history (David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon) that I thought, “Okay, I want to write that.”

The first thing a genius requires is a situation dire enough to require their attention.  My novel, The Thousand Names, opens with the Royal Colonial Infantry hanging on to the edge of a former territory now in open rebellion against the throne.  Outnumbered many times over, the beleaguered troops expect to be evacuated.  Instead, they’re sent a new commander—our genius, Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich.

Writing from the perspective of a genius is difficult for your average non-genius author.  It’s much easier to write from the perspective of the guy standing next to him, a technique I picked up from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by way of Timothy Zahn.  In lieu of Watson or Pellaeon, I had Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, now Janus’ second in command, and Winter Ihernglass, a young woman masquerading as a man, trying to hide amongst the infantry.

What started out as a way to give Janus someone to explain things to (“My God, Holmes, how could you know that?”) surprised me by turning into something a lot deeper and, I hope, more interesting.  The military genius can’t do everything on his own, I discovered.  In the end, he’s only as good as the men who carry out his orders, or refuse to, or do their best but get things wrong.

If you go back to the history books, you find that the relationship between a commander and his men is crucial, and different generals vary a good deal.   Napoleon was so charismatic that his contemporaries ascribe him nearly hypnotic powers—opponents would go to meet him in a rage and end up as his obedient subordinates.  He was an expert politician as well as a general, and a master of the dramatic gestures that could win a man’s loyalty forever.  On the other hand, the taciturn and aristocratic Lee was initially detested by his soldiers, and it took victory after victory before they built a confidence in him that came close to hero-worship.

Janus doesn’t have Napoleon’s mesmeric ability with people.  He’s abrupt, arrogant, and occasionally temperamental, which puts Marcus in a quandary.  More than anything else, Marcus is a good soldier, which means that he believes in the chain of command and his duty to his superior. It helps that Janus’ plan to take the fight to the rebels seems to be working.  But he also has a duty to the men in his regiment, and the question he has to answer is whether his new commander is brilliant, crazy, lucky, or some mix of all three.

For Winter, on the other hand, the problem is a bit different.  Isolated from her fellow soldiers by her fear of being discovered and tormented by a brutish sergeant, she has responsibility thrust into her unwilling hands.  When she shows a talent for leadership, she has to deal with the problem of what it means to receive loyalty and trust, and the crushing weight of the expectations of men who look to her to get them out of a bad situation.

The more I wrote (and re-wrote, and re-re-wrote), the more this question of loyalty and trust became the center of the novel.  Planning out the brilliant maneuvers on the maps was fun, but what I learned from the campaign histories is that the geniuses don’t succeed because they make up incredibly complicated plans that nobody else can understand.  (Indeed, that’s an almost certain sign of impending disaster.)  Instead, they won because they did simple things well—the right simple things, at the right times—and because, through charisma or brotherhood or fear or greed, they inspired the soldiers who followed them to go above and beyond.

That inspiration is what doesn’t get shown on the maps.  I wanted to try to capture what it was like to stand by the shoulder of one of the great commanders, for someone who didn’t know yet that he was great. I wanted to follow the growth of a relationship that would lead one man to put the kind of faith in a leader that soldiers put in Napoleon or Lee.

In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia with something like half a million men.  Less than twenty thousand Frenchmen returned, and even fewer survived the desperate campaigns of 1813 and 1814 before France’s defeat and the Emperor’s abdication.  But less than a year later, after Napoleon’s escape from Elba, he called for a new army to defend France. Incredibly, a lot of those same men signed up, in spite of everything they’d been through and everyone they’d lost along the way.

That’s what loyalty to a leader means, out at the sharp end.  That is, ultimately, what makes a military genius.  And that’s the Big Idea behind The Thousand Names.

—-

The Thousand Names: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jason Sheehan

Sometimes, when an author meets a piece of obsolete technology, it can change the way he looks at the world — or at least, a world.  Just ask Jason Sheehan about that, and about aircraft, and his debut science fiction novel, A Private Little War.

JASON SHEEHAN:

I figured I was in trouble when I actually saw my first biplane.

Not in a movie. Not in a grainy Youtube video. Not on the smudged photocopies of pages from a book on the technical specifications of the Fokker, the Spad, the bloody Camel. I knew I was in trouble when I saw my first for-real biplane—when I stood close enough to smell its exhaust and see the pissing drizzle of rain beading on its skin.

The machine was nothing like I’d expected. And standing in a muddy field outside of Seattle, Washington, surrounded by dozens of biplanes—touching them, staring into the gleaming complexities of their engines and talking with their pilots—I seriously considered junking my book entirely.

Why? Because the book that I was working on at the time (the book that would become A Private Little War) was about biplanes. It was about biplanes being flown by mercenary pilots working for a private military company who had chosen to employ them against a primitive and distant alien species because biplanes are cheap and simple and because it just does not take that much to achieve air superiority in a place where the natives still think that god makes the thunder. The biplanes, therefore, were important. Hell, they were central. They were the howling, flame-spitting, fuel-injected heart of the story. And biplanes-versus-aliens? That was my Big Idea.

Or so I thought at the time.

I’d had other moments like this. Early on in the process, I’d pitched the book based around a half-remembered story that’d stuck in my brain like a burr since I was a teenager. It was from a newspaper article I would’ve (and did) swear that I’d read following the first Gulf War, about Saddam Hussein attempting to hire pilots to fly biplanes against the Kurdish rebels in Northern Iraq. Following the ’91 war, the Iraqi military infrastructure was smashed. There were no runways, no air control, no radar. All the Iraqi MIG’s had been shot down or bombed in their hangars. But Hussein still wanted to go north and drop poison on the Kurds. And to do so, he needed planes.

Biplanes, as I kind-of-incorrectly recalled, were deemed perfect for this by his surviving air force officers. They didn’t need radar or modern runways. They didn’t need anything but a pilot willing to climb into what was essentially a bathtub strapped to a flying lawnmower and hand-drop chemical weapons on his fellow man for money. And since the Kurds were, for the most part, fighting from donkey-back with 100-year-old bolt-action rifles, going after them in wooden airplanes covered in flammable cloth seemed to make a weird sort of sense. My Big Idea then was the kind of dissonant brain-noise made by the crashing together of futures and pasts. I thought I was so goddamn clever.

After I’d used this story as the central hook of my pitch (“Look what these crazy idiots were doing! How cool would it be to do the same thing all over again in the future!”), I learned that I was wrong. That I’d had the bones of the tale right, but some vital historical details dead wrong. Near as I could figure, what I was actually recalling was a story from the end of a different war (WWII) where Iraq, after having their infrastructure smashed during the fighting (and subsequent coup) and being desperately in need of something air-worthy, employed a dozen-odd British Gloster Gladiator biplanes left over from the colonial days to go north and (of course) attack the Kurds. This was in 1949. A 42-year difference that, I believed, made all the difference in the world.

Again, I seriously considered junking the entire book. And might have, had I not already been, you know…paid.

I thought, for a time, that the Big Idea I had working was this whole economies of war thing. I was wrong.

There was a draft where my Big Idea was all about man’ instinctive fear and hatred of the unknown. One paragraph of that survived to the publishing date. About five lines. They’re really good lines and I like them a lot, but they are the distillation of tens of thousands of words of just utter, terrible crap—the living core of a Big Idea that died on the vine.

In case you’re interested, here are those lines:

“Arriving on a new planet, any new planet, is like being born again.  Everything is new. Nothing has a name. For lack of anything better or more productive to do, you ascribe malice or creeping evil to the stupidest of things: that rock, this plant. It’s the same everywhere. Everyone does it.  After his first half-dozen landings for Flyboy, Ted was never able to look at a baby the same way again, knowing for a stone fact that from the moment they come into the world they are full of hate and formless terror.”

I believed once (and still, to some extent, do) that my Big Idea in A Private Little War was a discussion of the military doctrine of “least application of force,” and the absurd limits of exigency and penury to which that can be taken when wars are planned and fought on spreadsheets by accountants and lawyers who risk nothing in their execution.

This certainly became a theme in the final version of the book. It became the driving plot device (which, in a perfect world, would make it, by default, my Big Idea, but what world—even among the made-up ones—is ever perfect?). I humanized it in the character of Eden “Fast Eddie” Lucas—the white-collar company man sent along on the ill-fated mission to Iaxo to make sure that the pilots and their biplanes kept the war on schedule and under-budget—and have even said in other interviews and conversations that this is What The Book Is About.

But I’ve never been entirely sure that this is true.

Obviously, I didn’t junk the entire book after seeing my first biplane up close. I changed the things I had to change (the sound of the engine at idle, the feel of the doped skin, where the f’ing gas tank was located) and—accurately, I think—retained the initial sense of awe and wonder and terror I’d first felt when picturing in my head these modern biplanes roaring across the alien skies of Iaxo. This worked because, as cool as the biplanes were, they weren’t the thing that held the story together or made it sing.

I didn’t give up after learning that my pitch was a load of crap. Instead, I laughed like a crazy person over the similarities between the false story I was remembering and the actual thing that had actually happened. As a lie, it’d been plausible enough to hang in my head for twenty years and eventually become the basis for a science fiction novel. And in its true form, the story was even better because it felt, weirdly, like proof. Of course this could happen because, look—it’s already happened once before.

As I imagine must happen with all books (save a very fortunate few), A Private Little War’s Big Ideas were whatever I needed them to be on the day and in the moment that I was putting them down on paper. And in the end, all of them—the half-lies, the unknowns, the worthwhile explorations and even the worst flights of high-minded dumbassery—contributed to the final product. This is a book about madness. About power and its limitations. About the technological curve, lust for machinery, love and death and whiskey and toast. It is, in its final version, a lot like the story of its creation: a record of miscommunication, false belief, wrong-headed assumptions and the failure of Big Ideas on every conceivable level.

For me, this is great because I came out the other side with a pretty cool book full of biplanes and aliens.

For my characters? Well, things turn out a little bit rougher for them in the end. I mean, it is a war story, after all. And those things? They rarely end well.

—-

A Private Little War: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: David Nickle

Today, with his novel The ‘Geisters, author David Nickle goes to a dark place. Want to come with him?

DAVID NICKLE:

I wanted to write a book about kink.

This was around the time that Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books were getting popular; well before the time that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey took Edward and Bella’s figuratively Dom-Sub relationship to its more literal manifestation in Christian and Anastasia. Part of my interest was mercenary—at that point, my previous two novels (Eutopia and Rasputin’s Bastards) were at the polite-rejection stage of their life cycle, and it sure seemed that this emerging kinky-horror market was a good place to set up a booth.

But I soon realized it would have been a lousy booth. Because every time I thought about the sparkle-skinned vampires of the town of Forks, I couldn’t help but also consider the silicon-skinned hausfraus of the town of Stepford. And while there’s a lot of sex, and sexual politics, at work in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, it’s not what anyone would call titillating.

In Stepford, kink is expressed as its nasty uncle: perversion.

So it was that I set out to write The ‘Geisters: a horror novel about perversion.

It’s the story of Ann LeSage, a young woman whose life has been shaped by the continual intrusion of a poltergeist that she eventually named the Insect. Unlike poltergeists of lore, which are said to wreak havoc for months or years in households including a troubled young daughter, the Insect doesn’t just disappear when she passes puberty. It in fact becomes downright murderous.

That’s bad enough. But the Insect has attracted the attention of a group of men who have a twisted and erotic obsession with poltergeists. They are long past chat rooms and dungeon play. They are powerful and wealthy and determined to use those advantages to court the real thing.

And the Insect… it’s prepared to show them reality like they’ve never seen it before

The book as it’s come together really owes a debt to Ira Levin. Think Rosemary’s Baby, with the part of Rosemary Woodhouse played by Carrie White.

It owes another kind of debt to a real-world perversion: the horror story that emerged in 2008 in Austria, of Elizabeth Fritzl who’d been kept prisoner in a cellar for 24 years as a sexual slave by her father Josef, among a growing “family” of children borne of repeated rapes. The ‘Geisters was in the proof-reading stage of its life-cycle when Amanda Berry made her escape from a makeshift dungeon in Cleveland, where she’d been literally chained for years along with two other women, so I can’t say that story influenced the book. But it surely did confirm to me the existence of a continuum of men using their predilections as a jumping-point for a literal life’s work of the objectification, subjugation and rape of women who are anything but willing ‘Subs.’ In that manner, the privileged gentlemen of The ‘Geisters aren’t playing a sex game divorced from human consequence, even as they trick themselves into thinking that they are. They are not sexy. They do not sparkle.

The ‘Geisters goes to an ugly and horrific place. It’s not the place most people go when they decide to experiment with responsible BDSM or other non-vanilla varieties of consensual sex. It is a place, to use the current parlance for these things, that contains more than a few triggers.

But it goes to that place in the company of Ann LeSage, and the Insect. I like to think that the horror show in my made-up story The ‘Geisters is at least more of a two-way street than it is for the victimized women in our sad reality.

—-

The ‘Geisters: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Hear the song inspired by the book, by Kari Maaren. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Madeline Ashby

What do an artificial person and a lost (and important!) government document have to do with each other — and Madeline Ashby’s latest novel, iD? You’re about to find out, from Ms. Ashby herself.

MADELINE ASHBY:

It’s funny, the things your book can tell you about yourself. When I wrote vN: The First Machine Dynasty for Angry Robot Books, my “big idea” was to write about robots from the robot perspective. Specifically, I wanted to write about the one self-replicating humanoid — Amy Peterson — who could hurt human beings. All the others would remain beholden to their “failsafe,” a feature programmed in by the Rapture-minded megachurch that funded their development, but Amy would be different. Amy wouldn’t see what was so special about human beings. Amy wouldn’t love them.

I left my husband shortly after finishing it.

Staring down the barrel of a sequel, I decided to invert everything from the first book. How would it feel to be a robot with an intact failsafe? How would he navigate a world whose relationship to its robot population was changing? How could he protect himself without resorting to violence? And that’s the “big idea” behind iD: The Second Machine Dynasty. It’s the story of Javier, Amy’s love interest from the first book, as he makes his way from Puerto Limón to Las Vegas to Walla-Walla to Nagasaki. It’s a story about a robot uprising, sure. But my idea was to tell that story on the personal scale — to talk about one humanoid turning away from humanity.

Making that big idea happen was tough. I didn’t possess the emotional wherewithal required to confront my subject matter head-on, at first. The only other fiction I wrote that year were science fiction prototypes for Intel Labs and the government of Ontario. That paid rent while I dealt with the whole Cape Fear situation going on at my new place. The guy living below us would, in between raking deep claw-marks in the dead clay of our front yard, threaten my new partner and accuse us of bugging his apartment. That made it tough to relax. But really, I was just scared. I was scared that I couldn’t do it. My circumstances were so different. I was out of school and drumming up clients. I had more stress and less time. I didn’t have years to while away on a passion project — I had a deadline. Plus, I was working on an even darker story than the first one. What if I couldn’t pull it off? For help, I started watching The Godfather, Part II over and over.

(For future reference, everything you need to know about sequels is in The Godfather, Part II.)

But I didn’t really discover what I needed until after my wallet was stolen in San Francisco. The wallet had my passport and my Canadian Permanent Residency card in it. Without the latter, I couldn’t get back into the country. Being trapped this way had been one of my deepest phobias since immigrating to Canada. It’s sort of like that nightmare about standing in front of an audience without any clothes on, only you’re standing in front of an armed guard without any papers. “I can’t go home,” I kept saying. “They won’t let me come home.”

Deep down, I realized that this was what my book was really about. It was about not being able to go home.

I took a 12-hour Greyhound ride down to Los Angeles, home of the only Canadian consulate in that state for travellers. This was surprisingly easy without any photo ID. I stayed there for two weeks, sleeping on my old roommate’s couch while I waited on new documents. There’s a terrible powerlessness in waiting on government bureaucracy. A willowy woman selling artisanal truffle salt told me the universe must have wanted me to be there, and I smiled politely and privately told “the universe” to fuck right off and die. Then some members of Amanda Palmer’s new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, told me the same thing when I saw them at Amoeba Music in Hollywood. Their new record has a whole song about a lost wallet. I teared up as they played it, and told them as much afterward. “I guess it’s for the best that this happened, otherwise you wouldn’t be here,” one of the band told me.

Well, maybe. The experience did lead me to face one of my greatest fears. And after you’ve done that, after you’ve gone to the place beyond fear, you realize that writer’s block is bullshit. I opened up the manuscript and out came a weird little story about an homme fatale who finds out how much he loves his fellow robots in the bedrooms of America.

What I like about that weird little story is that it significantly expands the world introduced in the first novel. Readers of vN wanted to know more about New Eden Ministries, the church that developed the vN for post-apocalyptic mass production. Now they will. They wanted to know more about Mecha, the city in Japan built by and for robots. Now they will. They wanted to know how Amy thought she could just start orphanages for unwanted robots in the middle of the ocean, without any repercussions from the human world. They’ll see how that turned out.

But that’s not what I really love about Javier’s story. What I love about it is that his story, like my own, is about having something secure and choosing something real. It’s about knowing you can never going home again, and going somewhere else to have another adventure. It’s about doing something scary. Something unfathomable. Something impossible. And living through it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Ramsey Hootman

Writer Ramsey Hootman grew up loving one literary genre but writing in an entirely different one for her debut novel Courting Greta. But don’t think that doesn’t mean her first literary love wasn’t an influence anyway. She’s here to explain how it was.

RAMSEY HOOTMAN:

I first read The Martian Chronicles at age 12. This glorious, mind-expanding gateway drug lured me away from the kid’s section and into the clutches of Heinlein, Asimov, Bova—our library was a bit outdated when it came to SF, forcing me to cut my teeth on the classics.

As I aged, my reading horizons expanded. These days my addiction is best sated by the hard SF of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge, but I’ve also come to adore the character-centric space opera of Lois McMaster Bujold and the hyrbid weirdness of China Mieville. I majored in English because words were my strength, but I attended a technical university and satisfied my GE requirements with physics, astronomy, and aviation.

So when I, a lifelong science fiction fan, finally became a novelist myself, the genre of my debut title was obviously… um…

Romance?

Well, not quite. Courting Greta breaks too many genre conventions to be considered straight-up romance, so it’s technically just contemporary fiction. But the heart of the book is undeniably a story about two people negotiating the rough terrain of a very awkward relationship. Maybe even doing what you’d call falling in love.

How does a SF addict write a love story? Not very well, according to the pile of agent rejections detailing why no editor in his or her right mind would consider my book. The only point of view character was male (a big no-no), the story was “too unconventional,” and, to quote one rejection in particular, my characters needed to be “more conventionally attractive.”.

Approaching a problem from a completely different angle, however, is often what it takes to produce something unique and innovative. In an echo of that rejection, Library Journal’s recent starred review of Courting Greta called the story original, refreshing, and – surprise! – “unconventional.”

So… how does a SF addict write a love story? Accidentally. I started not with a romance, but with a character – someone I wasn’t seeing anywhere outside my own favorite genre. Samuel is the kind of guy who’d feel totally comfortable running a LAN party or a D&D table. Not your cool retro hipster geek, but a genuine computer nerd. Totally 1337, but not so hot on the interpersonal skills. There are a lot of books written for this kind of guy, particularly in SFF, but none that I knew of written about him. At least, not in a contemporary real-world setting.

Of course, “geek” is more of a class than a character attribute, so to be more specific: Samuel Cooke is a snarky programmer whose world consists of his apartment, his office, and a computer screen. At least until something prompts him to take up his crutches (he has spina bifida) and venture into the real world. He’s bitter, self-centered, and painfully conscious of how pathetic his life looks to everyone else.

Sam has a couple of antagonists, the biggest one being himself, but what he needed was a foil. Not just someone to draw him out of his defensive shell, but to really get under his skin and provoke him to actions he’d normally never consider. This person would ideally be his opposite: domineering, physical, action-oriented.

It’s probably pretty cliche that the first person that popped into my head was my junior high gym coach. You know the guy I’m talking about; perhaps you even spent a few semesters trying to avoid his disapproving bark. Except that in my case, he was a she. Hmm. Now that was interesting. To make the situation even more dire, let’s say she’s a conservative Christian. Older. Bigger. Stronger. He would be all words, she’d be all action. The strong and silent type.

And just like that, I discovered something I love even more than a good science fiction yarn: a serious challenge. In fact, the reason I love hard SF so much is because it forces me to stretch just beyond the bounds of my own understanding. Which, for better or worse, is why it’s a genre I’m unlikely to tackle. Writing it would require knowing just enough to spoil the magic.

Writing Courting Greta, however, was a different kind of challenge altogether. Trying to put Samuel and Greta in a relationship that didn’t stretch the bounds of credibility meant learning to understand and empathize with both characters, as different as they were from each other – and from myself. Over ten years (yes, I said ten) I rewrote the entire manuscript several times. The climax, which seems so essential now, didn’t even come into being until a couple of months before I landed my agent. Throughout the process, it was never a question of how to fit them together so much as whether it was possible at all.

So. How does a SF addict write a love story? Quite a bit like writing science fiction, I suppose: extrapolating from what I knew of the world to speculate about the unknown. In what situation, under what circumstances, might I behave like my gym teacher? Giving her the benefit of the doubt on all counts, what would her motivations be? From Sam’s perspective, what on earth would he see in Greta? Could those qualities be magnified? I established a set of parameters – physical and emotional – and then launched my explorers toward a new horizon.

And like any good SF yarn, the best part is not the destination, but the possibilities explored along the way.

—-

Courting Greta: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Excerpt available at the Amazon link. Visit the author’s Web site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Will McIntosh

The game of love has a different set of rules today than it did even a few years ago — or so Hugo-winning author Will McIntosh recently learned. How will this affect how the game of love is played in the future? McIntosh speculates in his book Love Minus Eighty, and also, here in this Big Idea piece.

WILL McINTOSH:

In the future, single people will have access to databases containing millions of potential mates, complete with photo galleries and detailed information about their interests.  Elaborate matching software will be available to assist in their search for suitable mates…

Wait.  That’s the present.

When Orbit books expressed interest in seeing a proposal for a novel based on my short story, “Bridesicle”, they suggested I expand it by creating a larger vision of love and courtship in the future.   Doing a little research, I quickly discovered that my ideas about love and courtship in the present were a little out of date.  For one thing, I learned that people don’t go on dates any more–that the word date itself is dated.   Now, I met my wife a mere six years ago, so it’s not that I’ve been out of the dating pool for very long.  Evidently even when I was dating, I was an out-of-touch throwback.   I asked my wife for her input on this, and she confirmed that she felt like she’d been whisked back a few decades when we first met, what with me calling on the phone to ask her to go to dinner, and offering to pick her up and all that.

So I dug in and learned what I could about modern dating, with an eye toward how this might affect courtship in the future.

Evidently the modern approach to courtship is indirect.  Men don’t call women they’re interested in–they text them.  And in those texts, they don’t directly express interest in the woman, they just ask if she wants to hang out with him and his friends.  This allows men to avoid the sting of rejection.

There was also a recent article in The Atlantic about a guy who bounces from relationship to relationship, utterly incapable of settling on one woman, because there are just too many single women online to choose from.  The article concluded that online dating is destroying commitment and intimacy.  This is a fairly common SF idea, often depicted in the form of marriage contracts with time limits.

I’m not convinced we’re really headed in that direction, and this is reflected in my novel.  There have always been people who are uneasy with commitment, and people who thrive in a committed relationship.  I think online dating will make single people choosier, not necessarily more reluctant to commit.  Online dating offers people the opportunity to customize.  If you want a partner who loves Elvis Presley and exploring abandoned buildings, doesn’t want children, is a Methodist but not a churchgoer, and plays the trombone, you can locate her in under a minute.  The thing is, she likely doesn’t live anywhere near you, so those who are easily mobile have an advantage.

If you’re not sure who you’re looking for, don’t worry–dating professionals are always working on more precise algorithms to help you find the perfect match.  In the future, those algorithms may become scary accurate, because dating sites are doing a ton of research.  For example, want to improve your odds of getting a reply from that person you’re convinced is your soul mate?  Crunching millions of initial messages and response rates, dating sites have very specific advice for you.  First of all, use an unusual greeting, like Howdy, or How’s it going, instead of the stale and overused standard, Hi.  Don’t compliment your future soul-mate’s physical appearance.  Make a joke at your own expense.  Be an atheist (seriously, that was one of their findings).  And for God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t misspell words.

If you’re not a good speller, there’s more good news: there are people out there who will write your profile for you, for a fee.  In Love Minus Eighty, I extrapolated this trend, creating dating coaches who feed you lines as you interact with your date (I just can’t figure out how to avoid using that word), so you can make a good impression by being funny in a self-deprecating way while resisting the temptation to mention what a great butt your future soul-mate has.

When it comes to the future of love and courtship, I’m betting the big changes won’t come from advances in information technology.  We’re reaching a saturation point in terms of connectivity.  Yes, one day soon we’ll be able to interact with 3-D projections of people from the other side of the planet, but really, how different is that from what’s available today?  I think the real action will come in biotechnology.  Imagine how different things will be for people seeking romantic partners when brain imaging advances to the point where you can tell whether someone is feeling love or lust, when extremely reliable lie detection is not only possible, but cheap, and when you are in possession of your entire genome, and are expected to share that information with potential romantic partners.

I incorporated some of these truly futuristic elements into Love Minus Eighty, but in the end, the heart of the novel became as much about love in the present as in the future.  Maybe that’s because I feel as if I’m already living in the future when it comes to love, and how we go about finding it.

—-

Love Minus Eighty: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: David J. Schwartz

Author David J. Schwartz is offering his latest, Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, as an Amazon Kindle Serial: Buy it, and every couple of weeks a new episode drops into your eReader. A neat concept (and I know from episodic content), but what’s the story? Well, as Schwartz explains, head to the 1940s… and swerve.

DAVID J. SCHWARTZ:

I don’t know about you, but I spend an embarrassing amount of time wishing some things had never happened, or had happened differently. Part of what’s embarrassing is that a lot of these events I think about changing happened in high school, and the changes I would make mostly have to do with helping me appear a lot more With It than I was then or indeed ever have been since. My own personal alternate history, in other words, with divergence points like that time in ninth grade when–to be honest, I’ve blocked most of those things out by now. Trauma, you know.

A divergence point, as you probably know, is the event upon which an alternate history hinges. Take the battle of Gettysburg. Back in 1931 Winston Churchill wrote an essay from the point of view of an historian in a world where the Confederacy won the American Civil War, titled “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.” Alternate histories tend to focus on big events, because big events tend to have more consequences. Lee wins at Gettysburg, so the South wins the war, so–well, that changes everything. And that’s how science fiction is supposed to work: you change one thing and explore the implications.

My serial Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib isn’t science fiction; it’s contemporary fantasy with an alternate-history backstory. The primary divergence point, and in some ways the central idea for the entire world and story, is this: there was a top secret research project in the United States during World War II, but its object wasn’t the development of an atomic bomb. Instead, a team of magicians–including the late Aleister Crowley–found a way to weaponize demonic energy. As a result, magic has at least temporarily supplanted science as the preferred way of doing things. Instead of microwave ovens there are salamander-powered MagicWaves. Teleportation (known as “portalling”) is mainstream. Computers and the internet exist, but aren’t as reliable–or as relied upon–as in our world. Cellphones were never invented, but most people carry personally attuned crystals that allow them to place person-to-person calls–they never drop a call, but there is the occasional problem with ghosts picking up the line.

As you might imagine, magic has become a gateway for dozens of careers. File clerks and travel agents get certified in Spatial Distortion. Want a job with Dow or GE? An Alchemy degree might get your foot in the door. If you want to freelance for the rich and famous, putting up security wards around their lavish homes, Security Magic might be the path for you.

The school of the title is, in many ways, an unremarkable one for its world. It’s located in Gooseberry Bluff, Minnesota, just across the St. Croix River from Wisconsin. It’s more or less a technical school, not a fancy school for higher magic studies, like its crosstown rival, Arthur Stag College. It’s a good school as trade schools go, but not one that attracts much attention, until a couple of events attract the attention of the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs.

That’s another thing that Aleister Crowley did, in this world; the U.S. government was so pleased with his research in weaponizing demonic energy that they asked him to head up a new law-enforcement agency, charged with protecting the public from the threats and abuses of magic. And there are plenty of those. Among the most frightening and mysterious are the Heartstoppers, terroristic attacks in which dozens–sometimes hundreds–of people are left lifeless, though not technically dead. The attacks are fueled by demonic energy, and have taken place all over the globe.

That’s the world in which my protagonist, undercover FBMA agent Joy Wilkins, has to maneuver. It’s a world that’s been dealing with the implications and complications of magic for seventy years, and I try to reflect that. Some of the most fun I’ve had with the story has been in making up things like the Magical Currency Destabilization Act, figuring out how a conflict over magical/intellectual property rights might influence an interrogation, or all the utterly awesome ways in which libraries might exploit magic to, say, make Inter-Library Loans obsolete by enabling you to simply walk through the stacks to the library in the next town.

Joy has her own built-in challenges. She’s a rookie agent who comes into Gooseberry Bluff to investigate the disappearance of a professor and the illegal trafficking of demons. She sees auras, but she has trouble with faces; she has prosopagnosia, or face blindness. In a way, I think that has determined what this story is about, at least thematically: it’s about the deception of appearances. The deeper she gets into her investigation, the more difficulty she has deciding who to trust, and where to turn for help.

That’s the story, but the story doesn’t happen without the world, and the world of Gooseberry Bluff is built on that simple science fictional premise. Demons instead of atoms. That could change everything.

—-

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib: Amazon

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

The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

How “big” does science need to be to be important science? Jim Ottaviani ponders this as he explains the story of Primates, his latest science-related graphic novel.

JIM OTTAVIANI:

Big science. I’ve always been a big fan. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, the Very Large Array, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, NASA in its glory days, and what the heck, even today’s not-quite-as-glorious NASA…all inspire me. Their scale and audacity exemplify humanity at its best.

But — and you knew there was one of those coming — there’s also something discouraging about big science. When you think back to Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in their tiny lab (a shed, really) on rue Lhomond in Paris or Michelson and Morley in a Cleveland basement, respectively figuring out that there’s radiation that we can’t see and never imagined existing, and that there’s no luminiferous aether to carry any kind of real or imagined radiation, you might also wish for a time when you could make a world-changing discovery by yourself, or with just a partner or two, alone in a small room. Simpler times.

Or not so simple. Because doing science was as hard long ago as it is today, since by its nature science doesn’t get easier the less you know. And you still need enough money to feed yourself while you peer into the hidden corners of the natural world…or just look at what everyone else had looked at before, but with a clever enough hypothesis, sharp enough wits, and the patience to follow both to an unexpected place.

The unexpected place Jane Goodall followed her wits to was Gombe, in Tanzania. Dian Fossey? Karisoke in Rwanda. Biruté Galdikas? Tanjung Puting Reserve in Borneo. And the reason I wanted to learn more about these three — and in my experience the best way to learn about something is to write a book about it — was because their work is the antithesis of big science. One person, a notebook, and (sometimes) a pair of binoculars. That’s all it takes to make big discoveries if you’re as smart and as patient and as tough as Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas.

As usual for me, the story is told in comics. (Or as a graphic novel, if you like. I don’t have a strong preference myself, though I appreciate the sentiment when people bend over backward to use the more dignified phrase.) Why comics? Big science again, or rather, it’s opposite. To make something with the visual impact of a movie or television, as, you know, an actual movie or TV show, I’d need actors and sets and money. Lots of money.

With comics all I need to make something with both the visual impact of those other media and the staying power of a book is a six foot tall stack of reference material, imagination, and something to write with. Oh, and a skilled artistic collaborator, which I have in Maris Wicks. Her art sings, and does so via the simplest of tools: pen, ink, paper. Okay, she colored the book digitally, but you get my meaning: We didn’t need any more room or resources than what you could fit in a basement, or even a shed, to tell a big story.

And discovering what makes us human? That’s the biggest story and the biggest science I can imagine.

—-

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

Go to the book’s site (contains a pdf preview). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Bradley P. Beaulieu

Author Bradley P. Beaulieu wraps up his “Lays of Anuskaya” fantasy trilogy with novel The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, and on the occasion of its release, he’s moved to look back on the entire trilogy and think on what it means to him, and how it relates to our own real world.

BRADLEY P. BEAULIEU:

The Flames of Shadam Khoreh concludes a trilogy that began, at least in my head, some eight years ago. In it, a prince and princess of a Russo-inspired Grand Duchy join forces with members of a violent extremist group whose stated goal for decades has been to destroy the Grand Duchy and its influence in the region. Unlikely allies indeed. Much of the story is about healing a world that is broken, but another part, a much more layered and nuanced part, is about seeing the world as your enemy sees it.

The Lays of Anuskaya is centered on a group of three elemental sorcerers who centuries ago attempted to bring the world to a place of enlightenment. They not only failed, they failed in spectacular fashion, and the world itself paid the price. As the trilogy opens, one of those very sorcerers has been reborn. Through his dreams, and through the brave efforts of others, we find the source of the world’s ills: the fabric between the material world and the world of the elemental spirits has been weakening. Rifts have begun to form.

The true nature of these rifts, and how they might be fixed, is a matter of some debate. The rifts are causing blight and disease and war throughout the Grand Duchy and the neighboring empire, and still the dukes bicker amongst themselves, causing delays at a time when the world can least afford it. The Flames of Shadam Khoreh begins as the pain and destruction from these rifts is becoming dire. Everything now depends on the ability of one boy, the sorcerer reborn, in finding the truth of how the rifts might be healed once and for all, for if he doesn’t, the entire world will suffer the consequences.

One thing I’ve rarely talked about is the fact that 9/11, the Iraq War, and the surrounding conflicts were one of the primary sources of inspiration for this story. Like so many people—not just Americans, but people all over the world—I was greatly affected by the events of 9/11. There was rage and confusion and a deep desire to “get to the bottom of it,” to understand why the perpetrators of that crime had done what they’d done. The more I searched for answers, however, the more I realized that it’s an endless story with endless causes and endless consequences.

Look, I’m a pragmatist. There are hard truths in our world. I’m fully aware that there are legitimate reasons to use violence to achieve an end, but it also seems that too often violence (or the threat of violence) is the first thing we reach for in our arsenal (a funny word to use when you’re trying to broker peace, but somehow it seems apropos; and by the way, when I say we, I mean the entire human race). So much of our politics is posturing and refusing to give in for fear of being seen as weak or “appeasing” the enemy.

This is true in many conflicts around the world and was true of the conflict in the Middle East, and as I watched the conflict unfold, it built within me a frustration that was hard to reconcile. It was in that frustration that the seeds of The Winds of Khalakovo, the first book in the trilogy, were laid down. Those seeds started to bear fruit as I fleshed out the conflict that’s told in the story, one that has roots in generations past but that’s coming to a head just as Winds opens.

The heart of the story—a tale of irreconcilable differences—didn’t change very much in the telling. It continued to be the primary driver of what happened. But I was able to show where some people, if they try hard, can meet in the middle, and I was able to bring that new perspective to several different characters. That was one of the more gratifying things for me, to show a tale in which the characters learn and come to understand another culture from a perspective that was beforehand very limited. Not everyone ended up agreeing with the other side—that wouldn’t be a truthful story—but they certainly understood more if nothing else, and all of that came from my inner desires for us, in this world, to do the same.

So what’s the Big Idea? The Lays of Anuskaya isn’t about our world. It isn’t about the conflict in the Middle East. But it was born there, certainly, and so it’s hard to escape some parallelism. I suppose if I had to formulate the roiling of inner desires that led to this book, I’d say it’s a plea for us to look further than today.

It’s a plea for peace, as told through a tale of war.

—-

The Flames of Shadam Khroeh: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Smashwords

Read an excerpt (scroll down for links). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes’ latest novel, The Shining Girls, is hot. How hot? So hot that even before US publication, it was snapped up by Leo DiCaprio’s production company to be made into a television series. Why is it so hot? Because Beukes is one of the best writers of speculative fiction working today, and The Shining Girls a fine example of just how good she is. And to what does she credit for the genesis of this latest book? Why, the Internet, of course!

LAUREN BEUKES:

Writers write – that’s the most important thing, getting those pesky words onto the page. But writers also mess around a lot on the Internet.  And sometimes, just sometimes, that can pay off.

Take me, for example. I threw out the idea that I should write about a time-travelling serial killer during a bit of silly Twitter banter. And then quickly deleted the tweet because I realized I had to write that, right now, before someone else thought of it.

I had the image of a limping man giving a little girl an impossible toy that hadn’t been invented yet and a promise that he would be back to get it when she was grown up. I knew he had a house that opens onto other times that allows him to stalk young women through the decades. And I knew that when he did come back to find her to fulfill his promise, that she would survive and turn the hunt around.

It’s nice to have a strong premise to start with, but “serial killers” and “time travel” are two genres with a strong tradition, from Silence of The Lambs to Twelve Monkeys. I’m a big fan of the remix and the best mash-ups riff off the best things about the original and subvert them in a way that hopefully says something new or interesting.

Which meant, alas, I couldn’t write Bill & Ted’s Excellent Killing Spree from the dinosaurs to the Dark Ages with a stop-off in World War Two to kill Hitler.  Although that would probably have been a lot of fun.

And in fact there would be no killing Hitler. Not in my universe.

Between grandfather paradoxes, multiverse theory and the natural inclinations of subatomic mesons, I opted for classic Greek tragedy-style fatalism. By trying to resist your fate, you put into action all the events that will ensure that it comes about. Throw in some loops and snarls and paradoxes, and hey, voila!

You know what else has loops and snarls and ugly echoes that come up again and again? History.  Especially recent history.

Which is why I decided to contain the time travel over 60 years, from 1931 to 1993 (thereby specifically avoiding cell phones, the Internet, CCTV, Google Streetview and Reddit jumping on board to solve the mystery in two days flat)

There are obvious parallels in the book; the Great Depression of the 30s and our current recession, surveillance society and erosion of privacy in the name of the War on Terror, mirroring the tactics of McCarthyism and the Red Scare, the fact that women’s right to control their own bodies is apparently still somehow up for question according to politicians.  But I was also interested in how cities have reshaped around highways, how the world has changed and how we’ve adapted, how all of that explains who we are right now. I could do that through the eyes of my serial killer, Harper Curtis, who is too cynical to see anything but ruin and rot, but we can pull focus to see the bigger picture.

I read a lot, watched documentaries and YouTube videos, listened to oral histories, re-visited Chicago, where the novel is set, to location scout and interview insightful people from Chicago architects to criminal defense laywers, cops, historians, sports reporters and music journalists.

On the other side of this remix, I had to contend with the stereotype of the serial killer.

I tracked the killings very carefully across the timelines with a murder wall above my desk full of notecards and red string and evocative photographs of the eras; Harper’s killing timeline, which gets uglier and more elaborate as he goes on, jumping all over the place so his MO is impossible to track, the actual historical timeline, the totem objects he leaves behind on the bodies and the novel’s timeline, playing out between his story, Kirby, the survivor’s, and the young women of the title.

I also did a lot of research. It was a sad horror reading up on true crime cases. The banal reality is that serial killers are generally not the Chianti-sipping diabolically sophisticated Hannibal Lecter predators of our popular imagination. Most of them are vile and violent losers with impotence issues and very little insight into why they do what they do.

But despite the lack of inner life, in the news and in fiction, serial killers usually get more attention than their victims. There are so many dead girls. Dead girls every day. At worst, the young women are a bit of violent titillation, the gorgeous tragic blonde with glazed blue eyes and her dress rucked up to expose her stockings, lying with limbs akimbo in a spreading pool of blood, or chained up naked in a basement having her eyeball gouged out.

At best, they’re just one more piece in the bloody puzzle the detective has to solve. A tragic loss, especially one so young and beautiful, but we usually don’t get to know a whole lot about who she was before she was a corpse.

All of which meant I was much more interested in “the shining girls” Harper goes after than writing about him.

Killers often have a general type – which could be vulnerable people at risk, like sex workers or runaway kids, or much more specific, like Ted Bundy’s predilection for co-eds with brown hair and a middle parting.

But what if it wasn’t a physical type?

What if my killer was attracted to young women with a spark, who stood out in their time, who weren’t afraid to fight convention, or were still afraid, but pushed through anyway, who had fire in their guts and a burning curiosity and the desire to set the world alight. That would drive my killer insane. He would have to cut it out of them.

Trigger warning. There is cutting. The violence in the book is terse, but it is shocking. It’s supposed to be. Because real violence is shocking. And we shouldn’t forget that, what violence is, what it does to us, personally, and the ripples it sends out through society.

There’s a moment in the book where Kirby says, “How am I supposed to let this shit go?” pulling down the scarf she uses to hide the scar across her throat. And she’s right. How can we?

I dealt with it by narrating the attacks not from the killer’s perspective, riding on his shoulder, complicit, getting off on it, but from the victims’, the horror hung on a few terrible details right at the end of a chapter that has been all about their lives. We’re with them at the end, in the shock and pain and fear and outrage.

I tried to make it about the emotional impact. To make it real. I worked to make the women breathe on the page, so you would feel the loss of them. Not just as mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, but as people in their own right, from a young activist to a bohemian architect accused of being a dirty Red, an African American Rosie the Riveter war widow or a burlesque dancer who literally glows because she dances in radium paint and Kirby, the one who got away, but who has allowed her life to become derailed by the attack.

Ultimately it’s a story about obsession, free will and determinism; Harper’s compulsion to kill and Kirby’s obsession with finding him, being trapped by fate or kicking back against it.

—-

The Shining Girls: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. See the trailer (US|UK). Visit her blog. Follow her on Twitter.

 

The Big Idea: Michael Marshall Smith

It’s not unusual for authors to play with words in their stories. It’s slightly more unusual for authors to take chances with the meaning of their stories — and to see if the meaning of the stories will change if the words are changed, in a deliberate way. With The Gist, author Michael Marshall Smith is doing both. Here he explains how and why he’s doing it.

MICHAEL MARSHALL SMITH:

I don’t actually remember when or how or why I had the idea for The Gist—which is odd, as it’s ended up taking about ten years of my life. As a writer, I’m normally a pretty direct kind of guy. I don’t do fancy. I distrust artifice. I may wrestle with a Big Idea in a novel once in a while but it generally winds up being subservient to character and plot, and the books themselves are as straightforward as I can make them. The Gist had a complex circularity embedded within it from the start, however, and the idea sits front and centre.

The underlying notion is a simple one—Chinese whispers. It occurred to me that it might be intriguing to write a story and have it translated through a series of languages, before bringing it back around to English, to check what had happened in the meantime—to see if the ‘gist’ survived. To make it more interesting I decided to make the original story about the process of translation, too… or at least, I think that’s what happened. It may be that I started writing a story which featured a low-rent scuffler, a loser in every respect apart from having an exceptional facility with languages, who’s given the job of translating a book out of a language no-one’s never seen before… and that’s what gave me the idea of the translation project. I’m not sure. It must have happened one way or the other, but I can’t recall which was chicken and which was egg. The question loops back on itself, as the gist often does.

Either way, the translation aspect remained a pipe dream while I wrote the actual story, which took an unaccountably long time. Usually I like to get a first draft down as quickly as possible, preferably in a day, two or three at most. A handful have taken a few weeks to shoo into the cage, in between working on other things. The Gist took about five years, adding a little here, and a little there, with several months in between re-opening the file. I’m not sure why this was and I’ve never written anything else that way, but it meant that I was a significantly older person when I finished than I had been when I started, which is rather appropriate, given how the story turns.

When the story was finally done, and edited, I rubbed my hands together and prepared to embark upon the fun part. Nine months later, by then somewhat battle-scarred, I finally had a chain set up. I had agreeable individuals ready to translate the original into Italian, then from Italian into Polish, and from Polish into French. The final part of the journey, from French back to English, had always been earmarked for my old and dear friend Nicholas Royle, a writer whose work I admire very much and who was a source of great inspiration and support when I started to write. I’d originally hoped the chain might pass through a language using non-Roman characters, like Japanese or Hebrew, but it proved too hard to get the ins and outs to work: one of many things this project has shown me is how lucky I am to write in English, as other languages are far more patchily supported when it comes to translation. This struck me again when I gave a presentation on The Gist at the Sharjah Literary festival in the United Arab Emirates last year, as I was dependant upon simultaneous translation to communicate and unable to even guess at the title of the panel on which I was appearing.

Eventually I lit the blue touch paper and withdrew. At which point… nothing happened. The Italian translation never materialized, and so the whole thing ground to a halt. After two years I regretfully gave up, and prepared to use the story as the centerpiece of a new collection instead. But fortunately Bill Schafer at Subterranean, who’d been an enthusiastic, determined (and patient) supporter of the project from the start, prevailed upon me to give it one more try. I did, shortening the chain markedly and going to people upon whom I knew I could rely—Benoît Domis and Nick Royle. In a surprisingly short period of time these translations were done. I blocked out the design in the style of the Roycrafters (to whom reference is made in the story), and handed it over to Subterranean, who have made a fantastic job of turning this idea into a reality.

And it’s not done yet. Later this year The Gist will make the leap into the virtual, courtesy of one of my French publishers, Alain Nevant. His company Bragelonne will be publishing the story as an ebook, deploying an innovative app model that allows you to tap on any given paragraph of the story to alternate between the original English, the French, or the translated version. If you wish, you can even mix and match throughout, setting the gist free of any particular writer or language.

We all translate, all the time. Any given word, each collection of letters, is merely that: an arbitrary jumble of black squiggles upon which meaning has been conferred by history and convention. A word is not a thing, but merely an agreed method of referencing a thing, and these vary over time and space: what is comprehensible here and now would not be comprehensible there, or then. Every time we use a word in any language we are using something concrete to evoke the intangible, like using your hands to capture air. That’s not possible, of course, and never has been and never will be—and yet somehow we still manage to communicate, and run our lives, and buy cars, and order complicated coffees, and tell people we love them, and have them understand.

That’s the everyday miracle of language, the way in which through art we are translated. The big idea with The Gist was to celebrate how astonishing that is.

—-

The Gist: Subterranean Press|Amazon

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Mur Lafferty

In today’s Big Idea, Campbell Award nominee Mur Lafferty takes on both the serious (Hurricane Katrina) and the less-than-serious (humor! Which is funny!) while writing about her novel The Shambling Guide to New York City. Hey, did I mention she’s a Campbell Award nominee? I did? Well, it’s true, you know.

MUR LAFFERTY:

I don’t know about you, but when disaster strikes, I often feel lost and impotent. The biggest fear for my area is hurricanes; we don’t get earthquakes or tornadoes and no one really cares enough about us for a terrorist attack. I’m not a trained EMT or part of the Red Cross or particularly good at a lot of manual labor. I’m also the kind of person who would show up, want to help, and completely mess everything up by getting in the way.* So I get the sense of, when shit happens, there is nothing I can do. Or should do.

When hurricane Katrina landed in 2005, I was writing for RPGs at the time. New Orleans went under water and I had my usual stress of unable to do ANYTHING. But a proactive RPG writer, Dave Wendt, came up with the idea of writing a sourcebook based on New Orleans and have the proceeds benefit the Red Cross. I was excited! This was using a skill I had that wouldn’t get in the way of anyone! Long story short, since this isn’t about THAT book, but about the book that birthed it, my mind came up with a little look at New Orleans from a tourist zombie’s eyes, and a visiting zombie is going to need what humans need: a tour guide. So I wrote a 4000 word piece called “The Shambling Guide to New Orleans,” which was just a look around the city from the eyes of a perky undead tour guide who loved her city so much she wanted to keep her job after her death. It told people where they could sleep, what bars and clubs were welcoming to monsters, etc. I had my friend Angi Shearstone do four paintings of the tour guide in her element, and that was our donation.

But the idea of what kind of travel guide monsters would need wouldn’t let me go. I started fiddling with a book about a human woman who discovers that a) monsters are real, b) they like to travel just like humans, and c) they need their own kind of travel guides. And there’s a publishing company forming with eager writers, but they have no editors with experience. She cajoles her way into the job and discovers some pretty weird stuff- even without the “monsters are in the city” truth.

She also learns about the office life of the undead and monster lifestyle, mainly that there are no sexual harassment laws when you work with succubi and incubi, the zombies keep their lunch in the fridge, and locked doors don’t stop nosey water sprites who can just seep under the door. There’s also the etiquette involved- they don’t like being called “monsters” – it’s “coterie.” And the people who build Frankestein’s monsters don’t call themselves Frankensteins, they prefer “zoetists” – those who work with the magic of life.

It shouldn’t surprise you that I was a rabid fan of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy when I was in high school.** The very weird thing is that I didn’t realize how much those books influenced me until I had finished Shambling Guide. I suppose that’s a good thing, else I would have been stressed about perceived similarities, but I’ve been very lucky that one review said my book was like, “If Douglas Adams*** had written an episode of Buffy.” When I did my re-read, I kept hearing Peter Jones (“The Book” from the radio play) in my head reading the Shambling Guide excerpts at the end of each chapter, although his voice is wholly inappropriate for my “The Book.”

I’m thinking Vincent Price for “The Book.” Maybe Bea Arthur. Only, they’re dead.

The book (The Shambling Guide to New York City, not “The Book” within the book, also called TSGNYC. I can understand the confusion) is dedicated to my husband. Not only because I love him, but also because he made me submit it to Orbit instead of just podcasting it, as was my plan. So, thanks Jim. But it’s dedicated in part to Douglas Adams, because without his heavy influence and ability to spark a girl’s mind this book wouldn’t exist.

Humor is tough. You can read Adams and Willis and Pratchett and think, well hell, that’s easy. Put funny words together in a sentence! Something hangs in the sky the same way bricks don’t! Instant humor! But it’s not. That’s like saying that all professional baking needs is the ability to mix flour and salt and baking soda together. Yeah, you can throw stuff into a bowl but that doesn’t mean it can rise. I enjoy writing humor but I wish I understood it better. It just sort of happens when I write, I have trouble articulating how or why. I tend to think if I could articulate it, I’d be better at it, but maybe not. Maybe I’d just be able to tell others how to do it.

I got a “how to write humor” lecture off of Audible once, and it was racist/sexist/homobphobic as shit. Dude was very proud of a time he used “fruit” to describe a gay person in a joke. I’m not kidding.

Women! Amirite? </macfarlane>

So my Big Idea- hurricane, zombie tour guide, deep-seated Douglas Adams influence, and wandering into the great vast unknown called “humor.” It’s been a very interesting trek getting here, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Footnotes:

* I’m good at this. Seriously. My husband was in an accident just this morning, and after urgent care, I ran ahead of him to prop open the front door so he could get into the house easily, and two birds flew into the house. Two.

** I’m still a fan, but at the time “rabid” meant listening to the bootlegged radio tapes over and over and over again. The stores in the NC mountains didn’t carry a lot of BBC radio back in 1991. I’ve since purchased many versions of Adams’ work, including the radio play, hoping to kill my pirate karma.

*** Being too shy to meet Douglas Adams is my biggest regret, by the way. He was on tour promoting the Starship Titanic video game and we were at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and we walked by his booth. He was tall. We were too shy to say hello. He went back to England and died three years later. Seize the day, guys. Seriously.

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The Shambling Guide to New York City: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Hear an audio version of the first chapter (limited time). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Rhiannon Held

Readers often have default expectations when it comes to their reading — default expectations that we call “tropes.” But where do you go as a writer when the tropes don’t take you where your characters need to be? It’s a question that Rhiannon Held explores today as she writes about her new novel, Tarnished.

RHIANNON HELD:

Tarnished is the second book in my series, and if I had to articulate an over-arcing big idea for the whole series, it’s that I love to explore emotional truths tied to situations that don’t come up in typical urban fantasy tropes. In the first book, Silver, those non-trope situations were born from the religion and culture that I created for my werewolves. In Tarnished, I decided I wanted to find the emotional resonance in non-trope leadership strategies, and romantic relationships.

At the end of Silver my two main characters, Andrew and Silver, were poised to challenge for leadership of the largest werewolf pack in North America. In the typical urban fantasy trope as I’ve encountered it, usually the protagonist’s resistance to being Grand Supernatural Poobah begins as internal: she wouldn’t be any good at it! No one would accept her! Then, when she agrees, the resistance switches to being external: the rock golems won’t listen to a meat bag! The shapeshifters won’t listen to anyone banging a golem!

But once they’ve set aside their initial internal objections, would protagonists really automatically be totally committed to leading? Obviously they have to learn how to win everyone over, but would the protagonists really be completely awesome at leading once everyone’s behind them? Book 1 ended with Andrew and Silver’s decision to try to lead, and I decided that Book 2 needed to explore exactly what it would take to get there. Do they have the self-confidence to do it? Is that self-confidence strong enough to withstand everyone else’s doubt? Can they make hard decisions and keep their cool when people question those decisions? Can they admit they were wrong when they make mistakes? Can they delegate and trust others to get things done?

And can they lead, as opposed to just shouting louder than everyone else? Often werewolf alphas are portrayed as being all about physical strength, or if not physical strength, at least strength of emotional bullying. Andrew is somewhat slight in stature and slow from previous injuries; Silver can’t shift and can’t use her left arm. If they want to win the alphaship, they have do something other than shout loudest and punch hardest: they have to court allies, they have to coax people, they have to lead by example. I really wanted to showcase different leadership strategies, because while stories are often about the underdog beating the muscle-bound alpha, the underdog too often uses mystical punching powers that beat the alpha’s physical punching abilities. Why does punching have to be the measure of success?

Tarnished also introduces a new POV: Susan. She’s human and has a child with John, the Seattle alpha. She also has her moments of going toe-to-toe in fights with stronger, faster werewolves, but with her I also wanted to explore a different kind of romantic relationship. In Book 1, Andrew and Silver were somewhat typical of urban fantasies: they met, they were attracted to each other, obstacles kept them apart, but they got together in the end. In Book 2, I show them working as a functioning, loving team, so the romantic tension switches over to Susan and John.

Whether in books, movies, or television, I’ve always wanted more opportunities to cheer a couple on to working out their problems. That’s what gets you through life, after all—not giving up after the first big fight. Work through the fight and the relationship often ends up stronger on the other side. Of course, that’s not to say that life isn’t also filled with truly irreconcilable differences or people who are assholes. Staying to try desperately to change things in those situations can make everyone miserable. The way I think of it is that you want to preserve and care for a precious connection between two people, rather than upholding some ideal of not splitting up for moral reasons even if you have no connection left at all.

The trouble is that in fiction, the relationships being “worked on” are usually only based on irreconcilable differences or assholery. In that case, of course you’re cheering for the couple to break up! That way, one can get with the other hot, passionate love interest introduced in this book who is clearly so much better for him or her. Or else you’re rolling your eyes while waiting for the couple who’s off-again every book to provide cheap romantic tension to get their laughable miscommunication straightened out so they can be on-again.

Susan and John are already together. They have a child. They love each other, but their relationship is on the rocks because John lets himself be ashamed of her and misguidedly tries to protect her by keeping her out of the werewolf world. That’s something that can be worked out—I hope it’s something the readers want to see worked out!—because why should love be sacrificed to social expectations? But reconciliation is something they both have to work hard to achieve.

Hopefully playing with non-trope situations can help knock aside a few of the most annoying tropes as well. If my characters can remind readers that natural charisma doesn’t mean you’re born knowing exactly how to lead; people who aren’t hot, single twenty-somethings fall in love; and protecting your love by keeping them in ignorance of the supernatural world is forgetting they’re a consenting adult… so much the better!

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

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

The Big Idea: Madeleine Robins

Anyone who reads fairy tales knows that things happen in the tales for seemingly no reason at all. But just because there’s no reason in then doesn’t mean something interesting can’t happen when reason is added to them. Just ask Madeleine Robins, who mined a classic fairy tale when imagining Sold for Endless Rue.

MADELEINE ROBINS:

It started with a conversation. Or rather, an idea about a conversation.

When my kids were small we read a picture book of Rapunzel, gorgeously illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky.  You know: pregnant wife craves rampion, sends husband out to get it; he steals it from the garden of a witch, who catches him and demands his unborn child in return.  The witch locks the child in a tower, where the girl grows her hair long enough for a passing prince to climb up.  Merriment ensues.

Zelinsky’s art sets the story in an early Renaissance could-be-Italy, and the central spread, chock full of drama, is of the witch taking the baby.  There’s a rumpled bed with the mother, post-partum, lying exhausted among the sheets. There’s the young husband, sitting with his head in his hands, horrified at what he’s given away.  And there’s the black clad sorceress, a classic old hag, stealing from the room with the newborn babe in her arms.

Well, that musta been a hell of a conversation. Imagine the husband coming home: Honey, I got you your vegetables, but there’s a catch: the witch gets the kid. What would his wife say to him? And why does the witch want the baby? In fairy tales motivations don’t matter: the witch wants the baby because she’s a witch.  But I am contrary and difficult and I want a real motive for taking that child.  Sold for Endless Rue is, among other things, my attempt to do that.

As happens with these sorts of bolt-from-the blue notions, it sat around gathering dust-bunnies and stray factoids while I wrote other things. I began cursorily reading up on daily life in the Renaissance, thinking of ways to rehabilitate the witch. Maybe she’s a midwife?  At least that would give her a reason to be in the room when the baby was born.  But why take the kid?

I had nuthin.

And then I stumbled across a factoid that rewrote my whole idea of the middle ages and, by the way, this story.  The first medical school in Europe, the Scuola Medicina Salernitana, not only had women as students, but women instructors.  One of the most famous, Trotula di Ruggiero (immortalized in the Jack and Jill rhyme as “old Dame Trot”), specialized in women’s medicine–what we’d call OB/GYN.  Her texts on the subject were in use for centuries.  Dame Trot was not a damsel or a peasant.  She was a professional woman. How cool is that?

One of my secret vices: I love medical history, medical mysteries, medical technology.  Now I had an excuse to research the Scuola and dig deeper into medical theory of the time. Boy, did they have theories. Most of them are scary-laughable, but some of them were solidly sensible (for instance, the Scuola recommended a moderate diet, clean living, and lots of sleep).  Pretty quickly it was clear to me my witch wasn’t a witch but a doctor, and that her reason for taking the baby was rooted somehow in her ambition.

I hate the sort of historical fiction where the heroine is a 21st century soul in a 13th century houppelande.  Unless you show me why that character is an outlier from her own culture, you lose me.  How would a peasant girl even think of becoming a physician, a profession overwhelmingly male, occupied by those wealthy enough to have the education required to enter the Scuola?  Where would she get, for lack of a better word, the balls?

Then, among the dust-bunnies and factoids I’d been collecting, I got this image of a child running up a hill, trying to escape someone very scary who is as determined to catch her and beat her to death as she is to escape.  She reaches the top of the hill and is stopped cold by her first sight of the sea, stretching out from the bay of Salerno. It overwhelms her with its vastness and strangeness, the sight of the city spilling down into the harbor, the newness of things she’d never imagined. And then she hears the sound of her pursuer and runs again.

That’s where Laura’s story begins.  Everything she is comes from one moment when even terror can’t stop her curiosity, and when determination is all that keeps her alive.  That’s how she can go against the grain of her time and place.

There are things Laura loses in gaining what she wants.  There are people she loses.  Just like now, devoting yourself to your profession can have very personal cost.  Taking that baby, in Laura’s mind, evens old scores.

But of course, taking the baby is only half the story.  Babies, even babies raised in the towers of academe, grow up, and make plans of their own…

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Sold For Endless Rue: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Chelsea Pitcher

A bad thing happens, and we want justice for it. How far would we go for that justice? And what happens if in the pursuit of justice, we are tempted to act injudiciously? It’s the question that confronts author Chelsea Pitcher in her novel The S-Word.

CHELSEA PITCHER:

I’m a pretty pacifistic person. I don’t shoot guns or get turned on by knives. I’ve never even been in a physical fight (outside of sibling roughhousing). But once in a while, I dream of being a vigilante.

Vigilante-me sits atop a darkened high-rise and looks down at the city below. She scours the alleys for murderers and rapists, fingers twitching at the thought of revenge. She doesn’t wear skin-tight leather or a cape, but she does have a penchant for black, and there are probably boots involved. She makes the world a better place, picking up the justice system’s slack.

She’s a heroine.

It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? Deep down, I think we all have vigilante versions of ourselves hovering just beneath the surface of our skin. We see injustice in the world, we feel horrified, and we don’t know what to do to make things right. But the hero-inside knows, and she is ever vigilant, waiting for the right moment to break free and save the day.

I started writing “The S-Word” with this real-world vigilante in mind. Seventeen-year-old Angie is strong, determined, and wicked smart, but she isn’t a masked avenger bringing villains to justice in the dark. She’s a high school student living in a world where bullying is commonplace and suicide is seen as a viable escape. When her best friend, Lizzie, is bullied by the entire school and takes her own life, Angie stops playing the bystander and starts taking action.

That inner vigilante comes out.

After that, everything should be simple, right? The villains are caught, and the hero lives, if not happily, at least contentedly ever after. But trying to pinpoint villains in a society where everyone contributed, through action and passivity, to a teenage girl’s undoing, was harder than I anticipated. Where, even, to begin?

What followed were a series of interrogations, where both Angie and I attempted to uncover the events leading up to Lizzie’s demise. Who participated in the bullying, and why? Who tried to intervene? Who did nothing? Slowly a tapestry revealed itself, made up of dozens of interwoven threads. Angie was able to see, through careful sleuthing, not only who contributed directly to Lizzie’s torment, but also whose silence allowed the bullying to flourish. Now, all she had to do was take that information to the school administrators, and justice could be served…

Except, she didn’t.

Angie, in fact, had very different plans. That’s the problem with vigilantism: you can only work around the law for so long before you feel like you’re above the law. And Angie had done such a good job interrogating her suspects…Why shouldn’t she be the one to punish them? Why shouldn’t she take an eye for an eye, and make them sorry for Lizzie’s suffering—

Wait. What was happening to Angie?

Suddenly, my big idea shifted to something much darker than I’d expected. I was no longer dealing with a heroine’s noble attempt to bring justice to a broken world. I was dealing with the very real possibility of Angie losing her humanity and becoming a villain. After all, how many times can we exact vengeance before our sense of right and wrong becomes blurred? How many times can we be cruel, even to cruel people, before we forget how it feels to be kind?

So my big idea morphed, and mutated, and had little idea babies of its own. “The S-Word” stopped being a story about vigilantes, and became a study in that oh-so-flimsy line between good and evil in us all. And, by the end of it, I couldn’t help envisioning a vigilante and a villain crouching inside of me, each holding the other’s hand, two sides to the same coin, whispering: Let us out, just for a moment… 

What could go wrong?

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The S-Word: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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