Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Doug Sharp

Some books take longer to write than others. Channel Zilch took longer to write than most. But to be fair, author Doug Sharp has a very good reason for that. Here he is to explain.

DOUG SHARP:

It only took me 21 years to finish Channel Zilch.

Channel Zilch is the story of ex-astronaut Mick Oolfson and geek goddess Heloise (Hel) Chin. NASA canned Mick for stunt-flying a space shuttle; his one desire is to return to space.  Hel is a testosterone-surfing evolutionary roboticist, cortical multitasker, and aspiring midwife to the technological Singularity. The first book in the Hel’s Bet series, Channel Zilch begins with the theft of a space shuttle. And that’s the easy part.

Here’s the deal:

In 1992 I needed a new computer game project. I was droolingly bored cranking out lucrative contract code. My game career was dead. I was determined to resurrect it.

In the mid-80’s I was at the top of the computer game industry. I designed and coded two hit games: ChipWits (co-created with Mike Johnston) and Cinemaware’s The King of Chicago, which sold over 50k copies in 1987. Those were heady times:  winning awards, garnering reviews that made my Mom proud, giving conference presentations on Dramaton (my interactive narrative tech), and bouncing proposals off producers at the biggest game companies.

I sent Activision a 3-page proposal for a game called Future Cop and they bit. They coughed up a huge advance to create it. In 1988, six months into development, disaster: hammered by out-of-control epilepsy, I could no longer program and could barely hold a conversation. Future Cop died.

I struggled to remain vaguely human. I spent the next three hellish years pounded by seizures, trying permutations of mind-numbing epilepsy meds, and considering temporal lobe surgery.

When my seizures stabilized in 1991 I was no longer a hot property in the game industry. I knew I had to go back to my basement and create a self-financed game that would make me proud (and earn some bucks.)

I decided to build a story-telling screensaver. Screensavers were big business way back then and I could use my Dramaton platform to script the action.

Groping for a gripping tale, some perverse bundle of neurons in my brain birthed the indomitable Heloise Chin, scarily manipulative protagonist of Channel Zilch. In the wake of her creation trailed the shuttle-swiping storyline, characters I loved (and love), and a Big Fat Juicy Idea.

Life intruded on writing when, through some cosmic prank, I wound up working as a minion of Bill Gates, eventually managing and coding in Microsoft Research’s Virtual Worlds Group. I couldn’t write my CZ screensaver at night while coding VR  tools all day so I decided that Channel Zilch would be literature, not software.

In the fifth grade I remember looking at a blank sheet of paper and thinking, “I can write anything on this page—total freedom!” That’s when I decided to become an author. My game career intervened. So I was pumped when it hit me that Channel Zilch would make a rip-roaring novel. I coded cool cyberspace tools all day and wrote when I could. I finished the first draft in 1995 and got some great crit from MSFT buddies.

So what’s the Big Idea?

In 1992’s Channel Zilch, the Big Idea was to kickstart the Internet. Steal a space shuttle, hijack a high-bandwidth military satellite network, and turn it into a worldwide public net. Space Opera and Bandwidth to the Masses!

As those of you who can legally drink are aware, things change in 21 years. Bandwidth is pervasive. CZ’s original Big Idea became a quaint anachronism.

My life changed drastically in the 21 years of Channel Zilch’s gestation. In 1997 my epilepsy attacked with new ferocity and pummeled my brain for 6 years, causing severe cognitive loss and damaging my thalamus to damn me to the hell of Central Pain Syndrome.

CPS tortures me constantly by scrambling pain signals. I can no longer play a computer game, much less create one.

But I can write.

From my pain and my loss I forged a new heart and purpose for Channel Zilch. 

My life’s purpose is to do my damnedest to help cure CPS, to free myself and millions of fellow sufferers from neural hell. Channel Zilch became my way to realize that purpose.

I introduced a character suffering from CPS to give Hel a new goal:  to cure Central Pain Syndrome by figuring out how the brain works. Hel decides that the quickest route to a cure is rapid advance in AI. Heloise’s life’s purpose became a quest to recruit hordes of geeks to work on AI.

Channel Zilch’s new Big Idea is that one extraordinary person could kickstart the Singularity by mobilizing the geeks of the world.

Heloise Chin is that extraordinary person. Hel sums up her goal in a maxim she calls Hel’s Bet: “Work for the Singularity to max your odds of living long. Don’t bother if you’ve got a taste for dirt.”  Pascal’s Wager 2.0.

Stealing space shuttle Enterprise became a PR stunt to focus the world’s eyes on Heloise Chin.  Channel Zilch’s Orbiting Reality Show became a bully pulpit for Hel to extol a romanticized geek-bait Singularity–to taunt and goad and lure geeks to dive into the intimidating world of AI development. Her goal is to make coding an open-source Singularity the Geek Holy War.

Sci-fi changes the world because geeks who build the future read it. No Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke: no space program.

Maybe Hel’s crazy Bet will pay off.

Writing is painful for me. I need an aide to help me outline chapters because my cognitive loss makes it impossible for me to put things in linear order. I pushed myself because I was sure that writing the Hel’s Bet series would be my one small contribution to encouraging the brain research needed to cure CPS.

Last year I was fortunate to help found the Central Pain Syndrome Foundation and now serve on its Board of Directors. Panverse Publishing and I will donate 10% of our profits from The Hel’s Bet Series to the CPS Foundation.

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Channel Zilch: Amazon Barnes &  Noble | Smashwords 

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The Big Idea: David Hair

The clash of civilizations: Not always a great thing to live through, but a often very interesting to read about in a book. Which brings us to David Hair’s latest novel, Mage’s Blood, the first in series of books known as the Moontide Quartet. He’s got thoughts on civilizations, both in his books and here on Earth.

DAVID HAIR:

Bridge over Troubled Water, by Simon & Garfunkel . . . was absolutely NOT the inspiration for the Moontide Quartet. I think if I was going to write a book about bridges based on a song, it would have been On the Floe by Thin White Rope: “There is a bridge they’re afraid to complete; creatures walk on it, wearing ruts with their feet”. Cool song, great “lost” band.

No, Moontide is about East and West, and how never the twain shall meet – or rather, that they should meet: because only by meeting and understanding each other will the narrative of our world be changed from the current cycle of hatred and exploitation.

I was raised very much in the West, in New Zealand, and worked mostly in financial services. Very unexpectedly I found myself living in India, from 2007-2010. I’d never lived in a “developing country” before and it was a wonderful, viewpoint-changing experience. To suddenly be transported into a place where whole swathes of the population live and work on the side of the street in lean-tos you wouldn’t have kept your dog or your firewood in at home was eye-opening, to say the least. To see such places built right up to the edge of massive marble and gilt edifices was doubly stunning. Sure, we were living in a compound with guards and servants (and that was weird too), but we certainly didn’t remain penned inside. Some days I’d walk for hours around the city, to discover what was out there. You can never leave your front door in Delhi without seeing something you’ve never come across before. We visited dozens of other cities and towns too, saw amazing monuments and abject poverty, colours, sounds, smells that alter you. Basically, I spent four years being a wide-eyed tourist.

I loved it, and would go back in a heartbeat. But there were scary aspects  too. While we were there, bombs exploded in markets we frequented, though thankfully not while we were present. There was a pattern to such events: they tended to happen just before the evening news, so you learned to tailor your movements accordingly. We visited Mumbai a few weeks prior to the 26/11/2008 terror attacks, including going to the Taj Hotel and Leopold’s Café, both struck in the atrocities. A good friend of ours was in cell phone contact with someone trapped inside the Taj during the attack (thankfully, they got out alive). Friends and acquaintances were posted to Afghanistan. East versus West was very much on our minds.

Cultures have been clashing throughout existence. It’s not a new idea for a book, but it is pervasive, arguably the fundamental theme of our times: from 9/11 through Iraq and Afghanistan to the financial crises, engendering many cultural responses. Some are overtly on topic, like Zero Dark Thirty, while others are directly influenced (any movie with a swarthy Eastern-looking villain). Other such influences are more subtle, like the resurgence of zombie movies: hordes of incomprehensible invaders who just keep coming at you. All the fear and insecurities of our age are subtly  linked to the image of unassailable towers crumbling from an utterly unexpected and horrifying attack. Any book that wants to deal with East and West, in any form, does so in the shadow of that moment.

For myself, a fantasy-head from childhood, any attempt I made to capture how I felt about that theme would need to cover both my fascination with the East, my internal responses to seeing suffering and splendour side by side, and the moral ambiguity of the conflicts we see played out on the news every night. I wanted it to be big (because I love big fantasy stories), portrayed mostly from street-level (I prefer “everyman” protagonists), and to show both sides of the conflict. I wanted good and evil to be played out in the choices of the protagonists, without any blanket “all people of this race are good/bad” fall-backs. I wanted it to be primarily a tragedy: because that is what conflict is.

It’s most definitely not an allegory: I’m not trying to make any specific points about real world events. There are no shadow versions of Bush and Hussein! However I did use many real-world words quite deliberately, so that elements of the story would feel familiar and require minimal explanation to the reader: it’s a long enough story without having to explain too many of the words and customs, and those long descriptive passages tend to attract red ink from my editors. Oh, and it’s got NOTHING to do with the events of the Third Crusade of 1189-92.

In terms of the Western side of the story, one place the story definitely goes to is social class, specifically in terms of the purity of a mage’s blood. In Moontide, the bloodline of a mage most definitely matters: a pure-bred mage is intrinsically much stronger than a mixed-blood mage. This distinction between the haves and have-nots is fundamental to the Moontide world, and drives much of the action.

Any writer brings their own baggage: in New Zealand we pride ourselves on fairness, sensible and practical thinking, and a “classless society” (as distinct from a “tasteless society”). Sometimes we even live up to those ideals. I like to feel that we Kiwis can see two sides to most conflicts. The result, I hope, is a story that is even-handed, colourful, and transports you to a place that is both familiar but alien. My goal is to entertain, first and foremost, and if it achieves that, then I’m happy. And if you emerge with a desire to see foreign places and understand them better, all well and good. It is that sort of East meets West story: of people coming together and finding that we’re all human after all. I think we need more of them.

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Mage’s Blood: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s Web page.

The Big Idea: John Barnes

It’s a lot, to contemplate the end of civilization as we know it. John Barnes knows this for truth, as he’s been ending the world over the three books of the “Daybreak” series, of which The Last President is the latest. But the end of civilization isn’t just an event — it’s a process. Barnes explains below.

JOHN BARNES:

I’m not a linear guy, as I often explain, and as both my fans and detractors frequently remark. I like books to be everything and the kitchen sink and a bag of chips with a moonwalking bear, Thomas Edison, a levitating lawnmower, and a roller derby on Saturn’s rings thrown in. Big sprawls of chaos are what I like to read and what I like to write, and I make no apologies for it, because they’d be exactly the sort of lame apologies our esteemed host warns us about.

Readers of my blog know I like to set up seven slightly related ideas and riff on them till it adds up to something, so here are seven big ideas/speculations/musings that have had a good, fun run (well, I had fun anyway) in the Daybreak Trilogy, and that are prominent somewhere or somehow in The Last President.

1. Rome didn’t fall, it slid. The disastrous end of a civilization takes time: time during which people fall in love or out of it, make babies or create new identities, grow up or refuse to, hope that the old order will return or come to realize it won’t. From the Daybreak Event that begins Directive 51 to the end of The Last President is about two years. Out of almost eight billion people alive on October 27, 2024, around 250 million are still moving around in the fall of 2026. That’s a pretty fast slide, but it still happens a day at a time, and individual people still try to stay alive, and make it, or don’t, and find new things to do with their lives.

2. The constitutional thriller. This is a nearly extinct genre but I used to love them, and long ago such books as Advise and Consent, Seven Days in May, and The President’s Plane is Missing hit bestseller lists. I would guess that readers outside the US are barely aware of the genre (since the American obsession with our constitution seems to puzzle the world). A constitutional thriller is about the maneuvers and infighting when one of the many contradictions or little-used provisions of the Constitution suddenly manifests itself. I saw a way that the contradiction between Article II (powers of the executive) and Amendment 25 (succession to the presidency) could lead to a whirlwind of one president after another (four of them in four months) eventually ending up with two (or more) legitimate but unelected claimants to the office (and rival governments formed around them).

3. The title. I mean, The Last President. Someday someone will be the last person to hold the office. Possibly next year when Yellowstone goes off so savagely that the few survivors from North America are scattered over the earth as refugees. Probably not nearly as long as it will take changes in the sun to move Earth out of the habitable zone. But just as there was a last Roman Emperor and a last Caliph and a last Inca Emperor, the day will come when there was a POTUS yesterday, there isn’t a POTUS today, and there will never be a POTUS again.

4. Maybe self-replicating nanotech will go down the same pathway as nukes. It took a wartime emergency and an astonishing amount of effort and money to make a nuclear reaction do anything useful, and the first use was as a weapon. Only years afterward did we have reactors that could propel ships and make electricity. The technical challenges were simpler and the purpose more urgent for war than they were for peaceful applications. It seems to me that self-replicating nanotech has much the same technical and cost profile: getting nanobots to work together to synthesize an object, and at the same time to make more of themselves, looks very hard to me. But nanos that destroy things by reproducing around them? Comparatively duck soup. In the real world I don’t think weaponized self-replicating nanos will bring on the apocalypse (though I would not rule it out) but for a trilogy, it was more than seven billion high-piled corpses worth of fun.

5. The Cunning of History. That book, by Richard L. Rubenstein, contains some of the most sobering ideas I’ve ever encountered. Calmly and clearly, he points out that most people alive today are beneficiaries of something absolutely hideous in the past. His particular example was that the Holocaust made the postwar world much less complicated for most of the leadership of the Allies, so that they had a strong incentive to denounce it after the war when it was publicly confirmed, but not do very much to stop it while it was happening during the war. He connects this to many more cases along the way. In the long tale of the world most of us are the recipients of stolen goods and the fruits of murder, just by happening to be alive after they happened, and atrocities cannot be undone later.

And so, Richard L. Rubenstein says, like it or not, if we know our own history, because we usually can’t reject its bloody gifts, we become complicit in it, even in things that no human being wished at the time. The children born just after the Black Death didn’t ask to get a richer world with more to go around and more open opportunities via the death of half the people in the older generations, but that is what they got, and that is how they got it. Similarly, my Daybreak disaster kills billions; but the millions born just after it are, in many cases, much better off than they could have been before.

6. Shadow civilizations. In Latin, a fortified house or compound was a villa, and in Old German it was a burg; in Latin a town was an oppidum and a city was an urbs. There are practically no settled places in Europe with any form of “oppidum” or “urbs” in their names, but countless ones ending in -burg or -vill(e), and the standard explanation is that the towns and cities were deathtraps and the fortified homes were safe havens. Well, the doompreppers (hey, there’s a band name) have been building various kinds of quiet refuges since the 1970s, and accelerated their activity since Obama was elected; some of them are rich. And as for the Tribes that were waiting to surge into existence after Daybreak, it’s kind of interesting how many Masons there were among the founding American revolutionaries, and the real story behind the Jacobin Club will probably never be known, and I’m told that some Irish, Algerian, and Indian families treasure wedding licenses issued by revolutionary governments well before the revolution. If something will someday replace the American government, it may be present in embryo on the street where you live.

7. Diesel is the coolest punk. For the pure pleasure of sitting in a chair and imagining wild adventures that I would absolutely hate (because I’d get killed) in real life, nothing beats the between-the-wars pulp adventure tradition, when you could have real cowboys, intrepid reporters, fierce war lords, jaded PI’s, gallant aviators, secret weapons, remote fortresses, crazy inventors, cunning spies … eahh, I’m literary-homesick again. So I created a world that could have all of those, because without radar, radio, satellites, computers, etc., the world is a big place with a wild diversity of romantic occupations again. Not that I want to live there, but it’s where I want to go play.

And then a bonus: the way I like to do things.

8. ALL AT ONCE!

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The Last President: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Gwenda Bond

The path to creation is not always a smooth and drama-free one, especially when deities are involved. Just ask Gwenda Bond about this, and how this idea manifested in her latest novel, The Woken Gods — and how she finally found the right road to her novel’s true form.

GWENDA BOND:

The Big Idea for The Woken Gods sounds deceptively simple: all the gods of ancient mythology, all of them, woke up five years earlier, rising from the ground around the globe.

In the book, as a result, the world has changed, both in large ways and in small, extremely localized ones. Most gods stay where they woke, and aren’t particularly concerned with humanity’s affairs. When the Awakening happened, everyone thought it was the end times, but then the mysterious Society of the Sun came forward, and demonstrated that the gods weren’t untouchable. During the long sleep, the Society collected relics infused with divine magic, and it uses them to mount a defense for humans. The Afterlife and the Heavens are sealed off by relics, and the Egyptian god Sekhmet is executed with one, cut down on the Mall in D.C. to prove that gods, now, can die. And, as long as the doors are closed, never come back.

This is the treaty that makes a new world. Seven tricksters agree to serve as divine representatives, ambassadors to deal with the Society, and, with its world headquarters in the Library of Congress, that means Washington, D.C., is now one of the most transformed places there is.

It’s also where my protagonist Kyra Locke lives. Kyra is just a girl in a rebellious phase, a girl whose family was torn apart five years ago, and who now sneaks out with her friends and argues with her dad. A girl who is going to have to negotiate with gods, and who discovers she doesn’t know much about who she is at all.

There are lots of elements in this mix that I have a lifelong love for — mythology mashed up against the modern, a powerful society that may or may not be good, oracles and prophecies, family secrets, friends that stick by each other, complicated politics,a weird urban landscape. I knew from the get-go that I wanted the book to be an urban fantasy set in D.C. and that I wanted the world to have already undergone a huge change.

Perhaps it’ll come as no surprise, given all this, when I tell you this was not a book that came together easily. Each draft was vastly different than the last. Finally, I put the third major overhaul aside, thinking I would just have to give up on telling this story. But then…my first book sold, and I needed to propose a second book for my contract. Despite the faceplant after faceplant, there was something that still called me back to it. I wasn’t ready to admit defeat.

I asked some of the smartest people I know to gather around a table at a retreat and asked them to help me reboot the world… Then, after a little back and forth, the publisher accepted the pitch, and I wrote a whole new draft. I turned it in.

This is the part where you’re expecting me to tell you this time, this time, it finally came together. And it had started to come together, but it still wasn’t working. I knew everything about the world, but I was still hovering outside my main character, above her, watching Kyra, but not feeling her. When I went back to edit that draft, the problem was clear to me.

And I was running out of time, because this book was due, this book was on a schedule.

These are the moments of which writerly despair is made. But then I thought over all those drafts, I talked to those same friends, and I realized something. The one commonality — in all those third-person drafts filled with lovingly explicated worldbuilding — was my main character, Kyra Locke. She was the constant. This was her story. This was a big world, but the story was hers, my just-a-rebellious girl’s and she could hold her own against the gods if she had to.

With the growth in YA, it’s gotten much easier to find big stories of political intrigue with young characters — including young women — at their center. But maybe that also makes it easier to forget, there still aren’t nearly enough of them. It’s still not the way we’re conditioned to imagine those stories.

And so, that big change I needed to make, that final change, was to rewrite the book from Kyra’s point of view. I bring in a few other voices of her friends, but mostly, it’s all Kyra.

That’s when I finally got to the draft I wanted. Sure, I had to lose some grace notes that explained underpinnings of this bit of worldbuilding or that, I lost some jokes and darlings, but ultimately, what was necessary to support this story, her story, stayed and fit. And I hope that Kyra’s story feels like the beginning, like a window into a big world, and that her eyes feel like the right way to see it.

Because without her, there was no story. There was only a broken world in need of saving. And a writer in despair.

In The Woken Gods, families who are longtime members of the Society have reliquaries, in which they also maintain some sort of Hunter’s Map that serves as a historical record of significant events and the collection of important relics. For many of them, this is an actual map, hand-drawn and hung along a wall. If I picture my life as a writer as a map, for most books I’ve written — sold or (thankfully, in other cases) trunked — it would be no trouble at all for me to mark the spot when the spark of an idea turned into a book, trace the line of it growing into a story. But for this one, it would be almost impossible. It would be a twisty confused road through a dangerous city…

Until that final decision.

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The Woken Gods: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound | Powells

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

The Big Idea: Benedict Jacka

William Faulkner wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” This is a concept that comes into play with Chosen, the latest Alex Verus novel by Benedict Jacka. He’s here now to explain how.

BENEDICT JACKA:

It was early 2012, and I was thinking over ideas for a fourth Alex Verus novel.  At the time I didn’t know for sure that my publishers would want a fourth Alex Verus novel – due to the weirdness of publishing schedules I was planning the fourth book before the first one, Fated, had even been released, and publishers generally like to see sales figures before they commit to sequels – but if you can’t take a little uncertainty, you shouldn’t be in the writing business in the first place.  Which was how I found myself turning over plans for Alex Verus #4.

One thing I’d decided early on was that this time I wanted to present Alex as a bit more morally ambiguous.  In book #3, Taken, the main adversary had been a life-draining monster that fed off children, and when your villain’s that far down the morality scale it tends to make your protagonist’s ethical issues look pretty minor by comparison.  I thought I should change things up a bit, and it struck me that a good contrast to Taken would be to use something closer to a hero antagonist.

Now, hero antagonists aren’t anything new, but in most stories which use them, the “antagonist” part has a short shelf life.  When both guys in a fight are sympathetic, then once the initial conflict’s over the writer usually has them work out their differences somehow.  Either the antagonist finds out that the hero is in the right, and switches to the hero’s side (The Fugitive) the hero finds out that the antagonist is in the right, and switches to the antagonist’s side (Oblivion) or the whole thing is just a big misunderstanding and a prelude to the heroes teaming up against the real villain (pretty much every comic book crossover ever).

In all these stories the protagonist and the antagonist eventually realise that they should be on the same side.  But what if there wasn’t any misunderstanding?  What if the two characters’ goals were just fundamentally incompatible with each other?

Right from the start, a key element of Alex Verus’ backstory had been that his first teacher had been a particularly notorious mage named Richard Drakh.  I’d already established in the previous books that while working for Richard, Alex had done some things he wasn’t proud of, and it made sense that some of the survivors of those things might one day come looking for payback.  And since Richard had disappeared long before the events of Fated, the most visible target for them would be . . . Alex.

That opened up a whole bunch of interesting questions.  In FatedCursed, and Taken, Alex had gotten into quite a few fights, but not because he wanted to – it had usually been a case of self-defence.  But what would he do if someone was coming after him for a justified reason?  He’d try to compromise . . . but what if they weren’t interested in compromise?  What if they wanted him dead (not penalised, dead) for something that really was his fault?

Well, that struck me as a pretty interesting story hook.  Alex wouldn’t want to use lethal force against someone like that, but he wouldn’t just step in front of a bullet either.  His instinct would be to find out more, looking for a third option, which would mean going back over the parts of his own history that he really didn’t want to face.

Would it work?  The answer to that would depend on what kind of world I was writing.  In a idealistic setting, Alex would eventually (after a lot of soul-searching) be able to find some sort of peaceful solution.  In a more cynical setting, there’d be no peaceful solution, no happy ending:  one side or the other would end up dead.  I already had a feeling which of those it was going to turn out to be, but I didn’t know the details.  So I started writing the book to find out.

As for what my publishers thought . . . well, Chosen’s coming out today, so it seems they liked it.  Hope you do too!

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

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

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

Ever crash a ship into a planet? No? Well, then, Michael J. Martinez has one up on you with The Daedalus Incident. But to hear him tell about it in this Big Idea, that’s not even the coolest thing in the book. Think about that for a minute, why don’t you.

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ 

So…I’m crashing an 18th century frigate into 22nd century Mars. While that is certainly a rather large and important-ish idea in my debut novel, The Daedalus Incident, it’s actually not the Big Idea.

The Daedalus Incident is, in part, a historical fantasy in which the Age of Sail plays out amongst the planets of the solar system instead of the seas of Earth. And that was a great deal of fun to write, let me tell you. It’s got that big, noisy, whiz-bang vibe you get from swashbuckling, adventurous space opera. There’s lizard-people on Venus. Mysterious aliens on the rings of Saturn. Alchemy. Benjamin Franklin. Someone described it as Master and Commander meets Spelljammer. (I rather liked that one.)

And there’s a creaky, hardscrabble mining colony on Mars in the year 2132 that, I suppose, addresses the other half of my fan-brain. It’s a hard SF setting, with corporate mining operations, astronauts in dead-end jobs, laser drills, earthquakes, quantum physics and shuttle crashes. It’s the Future, right down to the holographic televisions and tofu-based diet. That was fun, too.

As you may suspect, the two settings come crashing together. Mad alchemists and nefarious evil are involved. There’s adventure and excitement and all the things Yoda says Jedi aren’t supposed to crave, but do anyway. Yes, even more fun.

But what’s it all about? Where’s this crazy yarn go?

I’ve often pointed to two different groups of influences on my writing. The first is the Napoleonic era naval literature of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian. Aside from the obvious influence, these two writers are, in some ways, cousins of SF/F writers, because they write about men haring off on missions of war and discovery into a great, big, scary unknown. The other group includes classic science fiction writers like Arthur C. Clarke, whose work often involves those same themes: coming face to face with the unknown and, in some cases, unknowable.

The common thread I discovered in the process of writing my own book was that these influences have, at their heart, ordinary people. There aren’t any Chosen Ones, or children of gods, or genetically engineered supermen. Nobody gets a dragon egg or a sacred gemstone or a magic sword. (Well, OK, there’s an alchemically treated sword in my book. Totally different though. It wasn’t stuck in a stone.)

The works that truly influenced me are about ordinary people facing the finality of death and the enormity of the unknown, and they do it out of duty, or love, or knowledge. Simple motivations, perhaps, but they spawn innovation, brilliance and courage. I think that’s why I liked them, because it made the characters incredibly identifiable to me.

That’s what I found in The Daedalus Incident as I wrote and revised it: the notion of ordinary people facing incredibly strange, dangerous and terrifying things because it was the right thing to do. It actually wasn’t an intentional theme at first – sometimes, I’m told, writing happens like that – but when I found that Big Idea in there, I definitely nurtured it as best I could.

I still liked crashing the frigate into Mars, of course. I mean, who wouldn’t?

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The Daedalus Incident: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Kat Richardson

Fun fact: Kat Richardson and I claim the same hometown of Claremont, California, and even lived there at the same time. And now she and I write in the SF/F genre! Coincidence? Well, yes. But still very cool. Kat’s kickass Greywalker series has a new installment, Possession. She’s here to give you the scoop.

KAT RICHARDSON:

“Ghosts have a bad habit of speaking in riddles—their minds are focused on different things than ours are and without their context, nothing they say makes sense.” Possession, p. 94

I write about ghosts, monsters, and dead people a lot. It’s not that I’m morbid, I just think they’re interesting tools for telling stories about bigger problems, not to mention… well, creepy! Often, I write about magic as the power of belief and how what a person or group of people believe can take form and wreak havoc. The real world is full of this kind of phenomenon that grows out of the actions of a few and infects many, putting them into control where before they perceived themselves as powerless (be that good or bad). But I got to thinking a lot, while I was outlining Possession, about the flip side of that—about losing control, losing your self and losing—or gaining—faith.

Let me digress just a little: two years ago my mother was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer and I became her Health Care Advocate, defender, chauffeur, treasurer, assistant, secretary, and dogsbody. I was spending a lot of time in hospital wards, outlining or writing books on my laptop while waiting for her to be released from whatever procedure or therapy she was undergoing at that point. I thought a lot about loss of control and loss of self as Mom got more and more dependent on me or others and her mind often wandered or locked up and wouldn’t let anything out when requested, or remember anything, no matter how much we tried to trick it into working normally again. It wasn’t having any and Mom and my sister and I had to muddle along with what we could collectively manage between the three of us—which wasn’t that much since we weren’t terribly close before this. Our collective memory was thin, out of date, and brittle.

So when I got to writing Possession, those were among the thoughts in my mind—loss of control, loss of self, and loss of autonomy, as well as just what a family may or may not be, however fractured and brittle.

I’d done several books with vampires, but I really wanted to give them a rest and work more with ghosts—which are pretty great symbols for loss of ability, loss of memory, and loss of autonomy. The idea of old-school séances and hauntings was high on my list of nifty things to do in the new book, but I wanted to use that sense of being unable to help yourself—that ultimate loss of control—that spirit possession implied. An otherwise normal person who suddenly cannot communicate or use their own body because someone or something else has control of it. It’s a horrifying thought, isn’t it? Allegorically, it’s powerful in political and social terms as well and there’s been a lot of news items in the past couple of years that have turned on the subject of autonomy and control. The theme kept cropping up.

In addition, the protagonist of the Greywalker novels has always had issues with being—or believing she is—in ultimate control of her life and destiny. When she discovers that she’s not, truly, in complete control, she’s initially angry and rejects the situation—the way my mother was angry about developing cancer and being at the mercy of doctors and protocols with no guarantees and no way to help herself but to let others do it. When the vegetative patients in the story begin to display strange behavior, their families are equally frightened and refuse to believe or even talk about it. One begins to lose her faith in God when nothing she or her church can do is any help; she has to sit by and watch her sister disappear in the storm of communication from the dead that means nothing to her. She enlists the protagonist to help her sort the important information from the chaff in hopes of saving what remains of her family, even if doing so flies in the face of her religion.

The protagonist has her own parallel issues. She’s got a handle on what her powers are, but she’s not very good at understanding or nurturing relationships, so she’s not always able to communicate in appropriate ways with the people she considers friends or family. A lot of the plot turns on problems of communication and self-determination or control—problems I saw in real life everywhere I looked. I felt these were important issues, even if they were cloaked in allegory and masquerading as ghosts.

Silence and stillness may not mean someone has nothing to say, but that they are unable to say it until they are empowered. The key to breaking the communication barrier isn’t yelling louder, but finding out why someone doesn’t speak up and removing that obstacle, having empathy and creating connections that allow communication to flow so that the silent ones can speak.

And that’s the little Big Idea lurking at the bottom of Possession. Of course there’s a lot more going on in the book, but if I told you everything, you wouldn’t need to read it. And John would never let me post here again because, well… 106,000 words is a bit excessive.

—-

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.