Buckle in, kids. Nick Harkaway, the critically acclaimed, award-nominated, and best selling author of the brand new book Tigerman, is about to get deep on y’all — and also, tell you a little about his new book, which is already racking up envious reviews.
You know what’s really a big idea? Making life. I mean: wow.
Like Tom Strong in Alan Moore’s comic, I am mostly – I should say “I was” – the sort of person who is more awestruck by the possibility of neurologically gear-shifting a gorilla to create a quasi-human consciousness than by the more common business of having a kid. I mean, lots of people have kids. How many people tamper with the biocognitive structure of a great ape? Am I right?
No. I am not. Because I can not think of anything I have done that is more amazing, more educative, more brain-meltingly overwhelming and physically exhausting, more testing and exciting and rewarding than being a dad. And I am only three and a half years into that project.
I knew it would be this way, too. I knew that I would respond to becoming a father with everything I am, because that is what I do. I’m not great with half-measures. If something comes into my life, that thing has to be accommodated and welded into the rest so that it is part of the landscape, inseparable from what was there before. Everything is contiguous. I write about liminality; I wear it like a pair of sunglasses; I even love it. I do not live it.
So when I started writing Tigerman, before my first child was born, I was anticipating the turbulent, demanding, absolute loyalty of parenthood. I may even have been planning it, feeling my way to the massive shift in priority and self-perception. And that’s where this book has its heart: in the urgent, conditioned, biological, personal need to be a father, and—in the reverse angle—the reciprocal need to have or to adopt a father. To make the father you want, if necessary, from available materials.
I can feel myself, five years ago, reading this if it was written by someone else and saying “I am not sure I give a damn about any of this right now.”
So let me say that I am not dropping something leaden on your doorstep and calling it a balloon. My natural state of arrested development makes me uncomfortable with stories that are only about the heavy stuff. The unrelieved emotional angst of some writing that’s popular at the moment makes me want to go and play Masters of Orion 2 instead of reading. (Which I do, because: vintage video strategy games? My kryptonite.) So interwoven with this serious depiction of human life and the boundaries of love and whatever that I as a Brit am inherently unwilling to talk about anyway, there is a whole other story about a guy who puts on a costume and opens the world’s most enjoyable can of whop-ass on various people who richly deserve it. Because if there is one thing I do like to write, it is an action sequence.
And if you are going to whop, you need badness upon which to do so. Whop without badness is choreography. Fight scenes work when you care, powerfully, about who wins – when to be honest you want to throw a punch yourself. So I made up an island that is basically the nicest place on Earth and poured over it the contents of the cantina at Mos Eisley. Nowhere will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy – and these international bastards of mystery, these crooks and spies and torturers and bankers and brokers, who we know without being told are responsible for everything that sucks about the world: this is where they’ve all chosen to come and do the stuff they would be ashamed to do anywhere else. This is the place where they have created a little home for themselves. Here. In this really nice island that has managed, despite all the usual colonial baggage, to be a decent home to its inhabitants, to be the town where you leave your keys in your car when you go into the store.
So yeah, um. I may have gotten a bit geopolitical about it, which I suppose is also a big idea, in the more conventional sense of the term. I do have big ideas about governance and justice in general. But come on: who doesn’t feel that the way the world is run, the jigsaw of governmental and corporate-legal doublespeak that means however illegal something is some branch office somewhere is allowed to do it anyway, whether that’s a chemical company dumping or the NSA and GCHQ listening to our phone calls by offshoring to one another… who does not get angry about that? A government should serve, not dictate. A corporation is not a person unless I can punch it in the face for being a jackass.
And above all: these systems we make, support, empower: they should damn well do what they say on the tin, what they are clearly supposed to do, and not what is permitted by the loosest and most weasely reading of the documents of their instantiation. They should not engineer gaps in their own oversight, in the rules that create them, so that they can do the bad things they are supposed to prevent because that is the easiest way. When, in fact, did we stop reaching for the Apollo Program ethos in every big project, and settle for being Saul Goodman, slipping between the tiles of the global ethical bathroom?
Yah. I get a little heated. And I almost didn’t realize until I wrote this what my big idea was in the book. I feel slightly dumb about that.
This is a book about responsibility. Which is what good people feel, and bad people don’t.
On the road again — or perhaps, on the road for the first time? Sarah McCarry is a writer who perceived a certain lack within a particular narrative trope. Dirty Wings is her attempt to address it; here she is to tell you about it, and the book.
When I was nineteen or twenty I used to drive up and down the west coast like the length of the 101 was a trip to the corner store. I had fallen in love with someone who was good at getting into trouble, and then it turned out I had something of a knack for trouble myself. Out there at the edge of the world with the silvery mass of the Pacific at my feet, a wilderness of stars pricking to life in a darkening sky so big the bright spark of my own life shrunk to nothing—out there it was easy to believe that nothing much mattered, that any want I dreamed up was a reason to keep going, that running away and running toward were only different ways to tell the same story.
We don’t tell girls to set themselves free. My own life, up until the moment I left home, was a more or less ordinary one. I wanted something bigger, but I didn’t have the words to name the shape that size might take. When I was very young, I believed in dragons, thought there was one out there waiting just for me—waiting to pluck me out of the mundane (tormented on the playground, awkward, too mouthy, too smart, not quite right for a girl) and carry me into the fantastic, where the qualities that made me unwelcome among my peers would reveal themselves to be a hero’s gifts. But in a few years I saw that the idea of a story with a girl like me at its center was itself so fantastical that the dragons would’ve been more likely. I hankered after far horizons, but good luck getting there, young lady: the road is no place for a girl. There was a home in the world for clever girls—that I didn’t doubt. But I wanted to be more than clever. I wanted to be bad news.
“When a man steps onto the road, his journey begins. When a woman steps onto that same road, hers ends,” Vanessa Veselka writes in “Green Screen,” her magnificent essay on the lack of female road narratives. The older I got, the more often I met girls who were living the stories I wanted, the stories that taught me how to make my own life in their image: girls who hopped trains, hitchhiked alone across continents, vagabonded through other countries, bicycled solo for thousands of miles, wandered without company through wildernesses. But for the most part, those girls’ stories—our stories—are left off the printed page. We get dragons, sure; we can be sorceresses and princesses, witches and swordswomen, assassins and vampires and robber brides and queens. Sometimes we even get to be monsters. But a girl whose heart’s too big for her body, a girl whose whole self says go out the door and keep going—that girl’s still got to write her own book.
So I did.
Dirty Wings is about a lot of things: it’s about love and death and music, and it’s about what happens when old stories catch up with new ones—the old story, in this case, being the death-tinted romance of Persephone and Hades. Underworlds both literal and imagined, labyrinths within the heart and below the earth. It’s about the magnificent allure of truly bad decisions, and it’s a little bit about magic, and a lot about friendship. It’s about the wide salt home of the Pacific, and that ribbon of the 101 that’s stitched still, forever, through my heart as much as it is the hearts of the girls I wrote about: Cass and Maia, new friends and twinned spirits on a road trip that will alter both their lives.
But really what it’s about—what it’s about for me, anyway—is being that girl with her eye on the edge of the world, that girl who says yes to all the wild things, that girl teaching herself how to run for the sake of running, choosing the uncertain, writing her own rules. Telling her own story, drawing her own maps. That girl who decided not to wait around for dragons. I wanted a story about girls who made their own trouble, and so I wrote it. Here’s hoping you like trouble, too.
Author Sebastien de Castell dislikes knights — well, dislike may be too mild a word for it — and loves justice. Does that sound mildly contradictory to you? De Castell explains why it is not, and how his novel Traitor’s Blade aims for that justice through a new and unexpected class of hero.
SEBASTIEN de CASTELL:
I hate knights.
How is it that the biggest bunch of self-involved bullies in all of European history became the most prominent heroes in fantasy literature? These are the same brutish and brutal thugs who murdered, raped, and pillaged their way across Europe and the Middle East in the name of God (thanks a lot, Pope Urban II). Which pre-Madison Avenue public relations firm managed to convince us that knights – I mean, fucking knights – were the paragons of honour and virtue in the Middle Ages?
Were there any good knights? Sure. William Marshall, sometimes called the ‘Flower of Chivalry’ was probably an alright fellow, but he’s the exception that proves the rule. The vast majority of medieval knighthood was made up of noble-born thugs whose most positive contribution to society was due to the occasional accidental death that comes from charging at each other with long sticks on horseback for the entertainment of slack-jawed yokels.
The hell with knights. I’d rather write about heroes.
That little rant is what launched me into writing Traitor’s Blade. I wanted characters that I could see myself rooting for–men and women without the advantages of wealth or military power who fought in service to an ideal rather than a particular church or nobleman or even their own personal honour. In other words, I wanted my main characters, Falcio, Kest, and Brasti, to be the opposite of knights.
I took my starting point from the justices itinerant of England’s twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These were magistrates, appointed by the King and commanded to travel from village to village to hear cases, pass judgments, and ensure verdicts were upheld. A similar phenomenon existed in the United States, especially along the frontiers. In fact, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his early law career on horseback, travelling alongside a judge (the actual term ‘circuit court’ comes from the designated routes of these wandering magistrates.)
I was fascinated by how dangerous a life being a justice itinerant might be. What happens when a baron or count decides he doesn’t like your verdict? Which way might the local knight or sheriff sway when his financial wellbeing is in the hands of the man you’re ruling against? Worst of all, what happens when the sovereign who appointed you dies? Those questions became the basis of the Greatcoats – the wandering magistrates of Traitor’s Blade who dedicate their lives to bringing justice to those living under the capricious rule of the nobility only to be disbanded when the king who appointed them is deposed and killed.
With Traitor’s Blade, I wanted to explore the struggle to keep alive an idealistic view of the law that is at odds with the very foundations of a feudal society. This meant recognizing that, while Falcio, Kest, and Brasti might be heroes to me, they wouldn’t be seen that way by the majority of the population in the world in which they live. Where the knights are admired and respected as military men in service to the will of the gods (which, miraculously, tends to align with the interests of the nobles who employ them), the Greatcoats are despised by the nobility and often reviled even by the peasantry who see them as having failed to bring the justice they promised.
Creating these anti-knights also meant thinking about tactical considerations. Where knights are designed for war, especially mounted combat, the Greatcoats are trained to be expert duellists. In a society like Tristia, the fictional country in which the novel is set, trial by combat is an idea that is ingrained into the culture. It made sense that the men and women who had to hear cases and render judgments might often need to uphold their verdict at the point of a sword. So while the knights wear heavy armour, the Greatcoats wear, well, coats – long, leather coats with thin bone plates sewn inside to provide some measure of defence against the weapons of their enemies while still being light enough to manoeuvre in for extended periods of time. This also fit with the Greatcoats’ need to travel long distances at speed and be protected from the elements. Their coats contain dozens of hidden pockets with little tricks and traps and chemicals to help them survive the dangers faced by those whose role is in direct conflict with the powerful in society.
The more time I spent envisioning the Greatcoats, the more I found myself searching for other adaptations to the way laws are administered in a corrupted feudal society. Verdicts need to be remembered in order to be upheld and a large portion of the population in a country like Tristia would be illiterate. So the Greatcoats set their rulings to the tune of songs that people know – making it easier for people to remember. Verdicts also need people willing to do what’s necessary to uphold them, and so the gold buttons on the coats could be used to pay twelve men and women who would act as a kind of long-term jury and ensure the ruling was upheld after the Greatcoat left.
The process of developing a new societal role inside of a more traditional fantasy setting was without doubt one of the most fun parts of building the world of Traitor’s Blade. I doubt that the historical justices itinerant were much like my Greatcoats, just as the knights of European history have little in common with their modern portrayals. But I like to think that there was a spark of that idealism in those who once wandered the long roads in an effort to bring the machinery of justice to those who lived far outside the protection of the courts.
There’s a system to things — especially magic. Why is there a system, and what is its function in telling a story? D.B. Jackson has a few thoughts on the matter, and how it matters to his latest colonial-era fantasy novel, A Plunder of Souls.
Creating magic systems is to writing fantasy what learning scales is to playing guitar or piano. It’s a fundamental, a basic skill that fantasy writers learn early on. Of course every magic system is at least somewhat unique — we all strive for originality when building our worlds and imbuing them with the powers that will become vital tools for our characters as our narratives unfold. But there are certain elemental principles of creating a magic system to which just about every author adheres: make sure the act of using magic carries some cost; place some limits on what magic and those who wield it can do; and above all, keep the magic consistent. Just as we cannot escape the natural laws that govern life in our real world — gravity, conservation of mass, Newtonian laws of motion, etc. — there should be no escaping the laws that govern our imagined systems of magic.
Except . . .
One doesn’t have to read much fantasy to realize that trying to escape the limits we place on our magic systems is just about the only thing our characters do, particularly the villainous (read “interesting”) ones. They seek more power than they ought to have, or they try to escape the costs we’ve so carefully built into the systems, or they seek to create new rules that apply only to themselves. Our heroes are then forced to find innovative ways to stop them, and invariably those heroes wind up bending the rules as well.
Notice I said “bending” and not “breaking.” Because more often than not the ultimate act of heroism lies not in sheer power, but in ingenuity, in finding some unexpected way to overcome the villain within the very constraints of the magic system that the antagonist hopes to evade. It’s a tried and true plot device that one can find not only in books, but also in movies and television, not only in fantasy, but also in science fiction. (Think of Data’s Moriarty on Star Trek: TNG, plying Doctor Pulaski with crumpets and extending his reach beyond the confines of the Holodeck to very nearly take command of the Enterprise.)
In A Plunder of Souls, the third novel in my historical urban fantasy series, the Thieftaker Chronicles, my conjuring, thieftaking hero, Ethan Kaille, takes on a villain who seeks to gather more power for himself than any conjurer ought to have. “Magick” in my version of pre-Revolutionary Boston, exists at the boundary between the living world and the realm of the dead. Every conjurer has a guide — the ghost of an ancestor who was also a conjurer — who helps him or her access that source of power. And so my villain, Nate Ramsey, has desecrated the graves of the recently deceased, placed his mark upon the corpses, and claimed them as soldiers in a ghostly army. With this force, he seeks to prevent others from casting spells, leaving himself as not merely the most powerful conjurer the world has known, but as the one person in the world who can cast spells.
It’s both a familiar idea and a big one. Familiar because it works: authors in our genre have used a thousand variations on this theme to create gripping and compelling narratives. Big because it taps into something central to human nature: the corrupting influence that can emanate from any sort of power. Ramsey is already a skilled conjurer, but in addition to being brilliant, he’s also cruel, a bit mad, and bent on avenging the death of his father.
More, he hopes to bend the laws of nature just as he does the laws of magic, so that his mastery of the realm of the dead will allow him to return his father to the world of the living. He refuses to accept that his reanimated father would be an abomination, something neither living nor dead and certainly nothing like the man who raised him. He seeks to master death, and is so drunk with the notion of doing so that he can’t see beyond the realization of his twisted aims.
It was no accident that I sought to have Ramsey violate both natural and magical law. As I’ve said already, in creating my magic systems I seek to make them elemental, so that they are as constant and inviable as nature itself. Equating Ramsey’s magical ambitions with his desire to resurrect his father reinforces not only the dark elements of his character, but also the worldbuilding I have done to make Colonial Boston into a setting that is both historically convincing and fantastical. I should add here that all of this is happening within the context of a growing movement for liberty within the colonies, and a smallpox epidemic spreading through Boston. It also bears mentioning that Ramsey’s attempts to enhance his power, and the magical battles in which he engages with Ethan are pretty frickin’ cool, if I do say so myself. “Familiar,” certainly isn’t meant to imply “humdrum.”
But the greater point is this: in order to thwart Ramsey’s scheme, Ethan must venture down a path that is nearly as dark as the one Ramsey has followed. He, too, must disturb the graves of the dead and attempt spells that, while still conforming to the established rules of my magic system, test the boundaries of that system in ways that would have been unthinkable to him only a short while before. Even if he succeeds (and you’ll have to read the book to find out if he does), and even if the integrity of the magic system is reaffirmed, there is bound to be a cost. Already, Ramsey’s actions have exposed unexpected vulnerabilities; other conjurers of comparable skill, harboring similar ambitions, might test it further, requiring my hero to be even more creative next time around.
As I say, this stretching of the magic system is a plot device that is at once familiar and effective. It tests our worldbuilding, forces our characters to innovate and grow, and challenges us to take our narratives in directions we might not have anticipated. And that’s why it’s not only a big idea, but also a fun one.
The Beatles once said that love is all you need. This may or may not be the truth, but Mary E. Pearson certainly found love useful and applicable when writing her latest novel, The Kiss of Deception. She’s here now to tell you how love made this particular world go ’round.
MARY E. PEARSON:
I’ll just get this out up front. Love. The big idea is love. Unabashed, unapologetic, sweeping, passionate love.
Don’t tune out, guys. You don’t get a pass here. The ladies may be more verbal about it, and may express it differently, but guys are the far more romantic of the species. Trust me, you are. You love love. You just don’t talk about it as much. Women tend to be more verbal about it because we have to be. Historically, love has always been a riskier proposition for women than men. We need to muse about it. We have far more to lose. It’s a survival thing you know?
All right. Hate. The big idea is about hate too. (Happy?) Because it seems these two are the indestructible duo—the timeless driving forces of the human experience. Kingdoms may fall, stars may implode, suns fizzle out, and monuments tumble, but love and hate abide.
I didn’t pull this out of thin air. Watching the news, watching mistakes repeated, watching people, both men and women, gaining rights and losing them again, seeing the world take two steps forward and two steps back, it made me think about how much the world has changed but also how much it has stayed the same. We repeat history over and over again. Kind of a scary thought. We aren’t that much different than Cleopatra and Mark Antony pining for each other, or Alexander the Great leading ancient armies to conquer other kingdoms.
Together, this dynamic duo become the driving force of my book, under a new moniker—the things that last.
When I first proposed this series to my editor I wrote down about fifteen or so musings that were rambling around in my head aching to become a story. I don’t usually do that, but after having written many books I’ve grown accustomed to the frequent question about what inspired me. Months and years later, often it’s hard to pinpoint just one thing because a lot of inspirations can jump in once you begin writing a book. So obviously for me, there were many ideas that were scrambling for my attention, but the things that last seemed to compliment and encompass them all.
So, now how to write about this. Love and hate and the things that last are pretty big vague things to write about. Shrug. Who cares? Unless they have faces. Unless they live and breathe and hope and dream, and conspire just like us. It all begins and ends with character.
Enter Lia. A pawn. Used. Powerless, even if she appears to be in a position of influence as a princess in the kingdom of Morrighan. Most importantly, her voice is suppressed. More than anything she wants to speak out and be heard, but her voice doesn’t matter. She is valued for other purposes. And then the most basic right, to marry someone of her own choice, is taken from her. Instead of being forced into a loveless marriage that would certainly be the seal on her silence, she runs.
But Lia is also living in the ruins of a forgotten world where hate, in all its incarnations is rearing its ugly head in the form of power and greed. Three large kingdoms are all vying for power, and even though she tries to begin a new anonymous life, Lia is still caught in the middle of the power struggle. She can’t escape it. The one thing that offers some light to her, is love, or the hope for it.
The story is written from three viewpoints, Lia’s, Rafe’s, and Kaden’s, and I thought it only fair that all three manifest both of these driving forces. We can’t possibly believe it’s only the “other guy or girl” who harbors hate—even most villains want some measure of love—maybe in fact, that’s their problem, they want all of it.
Okay, now cue in the fifteen things I mentioned above—they all play a critical role in the story—concepts of time, oral histories, perfect disasters, dormant genes, vanished cultures, the mysteries we’ll never know, and especially the setting, but they all are seamed in with the big idea. Yes, my head was sometimes exploding.
As I wrote, I saw the sweeping bigness to the hate, its carnage, the immensity and breadth of its reach in all its incarnations of greed, power, and control. It surprised me. I mean, hello, I’m the one writing the story, and this is what I wanted to write about, the things that last, but it made me sad how true it felt. It made me wonder at just what point does any human being stop being able to care about anyone else but themselves?
But there was the love story. It was the balance. Its power seemed so small by comparison. Fragile, intimate, naïve, stumbling, sometimes stupid, but with all the hope of two oceans.
And maybe that’s why it’s one of the things that lasts too.
The Kiss of Deception has been called high fantasy. I suppose it is. There are princes, princesses, warring kingdoms, and what is perceived to be a touch of magic. But I will say this, it fits into at least two other genres as well. I guess when you’re dealing with something that spans millennia like the things that last, an author is bound to overstep a boundary or two.
As the first named hurricane of the season wanders along off the east coast of the US, it’s perhaps fitting that today’s Big Idea book is Hurricane Fever, by Tobias Buckell. But the hurricanes of this novel take place further south, in the Caribbean — and that’s where its hero comes from, too. Buckell explains why the latter point is especially important.
TOBIAS S. BUCKELL:
When I was teenager my grandfather and I spent a couple months slowly going through and watching the entire James Bond series on VHS tape. At the time I lived on a boat at anchor off St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands. My grandfather’s boat, Seven Seas, lay not too far away from us. Every night I’d hop in a dinghy and motor over to my grandfather’s and watch a movie after dinner.
We watched one movie exactly because the 12-volt car batteries linked up in series to make a bank would have been charging all day via a wind generator mounted on the main mast. Any more than one movie, and that bank of batteries would run out of charge for the day. There was another bank that we could switch over to, but that was held in reserve to start the motor only. If it had been a low-wind day, we’d often have to fire up the boat’s engine near the end of the film (which used up costly diesel fuel). My grandfather always kept an eye on the voltmeter during the final third of a movie.
It was a strange thing to watch Bond in action sometimes. Because Bond often came to the sorts of places we were in at that moment, watching the movie. When Bond came to any islands, or any places in the developing world, he was a force of nature. He blew things up, slept with ALL the women, and raced around in boats (that exploded even more). I began to realize that, for the people making, filming, and in some ways writing about areas like my homeland, it was an exotic destination and no more.
I realized that people there didn’t get to have the same adventures. They never got to stand up to the enemies who had penetrated their settings. In many cases, the villain was often of the developing world. So we were a place to visit, a playground, the thing to sleep with (or exploit) and the enemy.
But the islands I grew up on were so much more. I knew that. The islands were a place of beauty and a destination. Sure. There’s a reason tourism is so huge. But damn it, there were scientists and science being done. There were corporations being built. There were cities being forged, culture and food and…
…There were heroes as well.
And there should be fictional heroes as well. Because we should all get to see ourselves out there as heroes.
When the the black-hats get on a megayacht and sail off to aquamarine waters to cause trouble, why shouldn’t a local agent get curious about the mayhem and start digging around?
That is how Prudence James came to be born: my asking that question. Roo, as he prefers, appeared in Arctic Rising, lending a hand to the main character of that novel as she navigated an increasingly hostile ice-free Arctic.
Roo is my answer to the question: where are the Caribbean agents? What about the people who live there? What do they think about all this?
Because, at anchor, enjoying the explosions on a tiny screen all those years ago, I felt an emptiness that I couldn’t put a finger on. I wanted to see stories that included and featured people like my friends and me. Bi-racial people. Caribbean people. Caribbean people at large in the future. I wanted to add to the experience, I wanted to deepen the pool that was the mythology of the secret agent.
Getting to do so in Hurricane Fever was finishing a promise I made a very long time ago.
Maybe you don’t lie awake at night, wondering what it would take to break the world, but that just means you’re not Marcus Sakey. His new novel A Better World (the sequel to Brilliance, which is itself headed to the big screen) explores what it takes to grind things to a halt, and to throw life quickly out of balance. And what does it take? Well, as Sakey explains, the real question isn’t what does it take… but how little.
What would you do if there was no milk on the shelves?
Take a moment and honestly ponder it. If you run out of something, you go to the store and replace it. That’s part of the modern social contract. You need bacon? Diapers? Medicine? Get in your car, swipe some plastic, and those things are yours.
But what if out of the clear blue sky you could no longer depend on that?
That’s one of the central questions I wanted to explore in A Better World. The book is the sequel to last year’s Brilliance, a novel about an alternate present in which, since 1980, one percent of people are born savants. At first the ‘brilliants’ are a curiosity; then a concern; and finally, as they exceed the rest of us in every field, a source of incredible social tension. One percent of the world is now objectively better than the rest—but they are outnumbered 99-to-1.
The first book set up the looming conflict, the cliff on the horizon. With the sequel, I wanted to walk up to—and maybe over—the precipice. But that walk was the point. See, most dystopian novels begin after the apocalypse, when the world has already changed in fundamental ways. I love those books, but I wanted to write one about society falling apart; an exploration of how small failings can splinter the larger whole.
First, I had to figure out how it would happen. I love this kind of research—it’s one of the reasons I write. To make sure my details are accurate, I’ve shadowed gang cops, trained with snipers, gone diving for pirate treasure, held a human brain, and even been pepper sprayed on television. (Seriously: check it out).
In this case, I went to the crazies. Sorry—the survival enthusiasts. There are a surprising number of people who spend time preparing for just this kind of scenario. Googling the end of the world is actually a really interesting rabbit hole to lose yourself down.
Anyway, it turns out it’s a lot more plausible than you’d think. Despite the advancements of modern life, our world is extremely fragile. In fact, those advancements are part of the problem.
It used to be that grocery stores had storage space for all kinds of goods. So when the beans were running low, someone went to the back, grabbed another case, and put them on the shelf.
Not anymore. You know the scanner at checkout? It plugs into a database that tracks inventory and automatically reorders products as needed. There are no back-up supplies. It’s not just grocery stores, either. Pharmacies, manufacturers large and small, even gas stations all work this way. The system is called ‘Just In Time Inventory’, and it’s far more efficient, allowing companies to reduce their overhead expenses and avoid waste.
The problem is that it’s very intricate, and the more intricate the system, the more vulnerable. Break any single gear, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.
Okay, fine. But how do you break that gear? After all, stores are supplied by a vast network from all over the country. There are multiple redundancies, and the nature of the free market means that if one company fails, another is quick to eat its lunch.
The answer, it turned out, was to exploit the complexities of another system. In A Better World, a small group of terrorists hijacks trucks in three cities, and kills the drivers. (Actually, they burn them alive, because they want to make the strongest possible statement, and they’re, you know, intense.)
As a result, insurance carriers for trucking in those cities immediately suspend coverage. They can’t cover that kind of liability. This would really happen—think of all the flood coverage suspended post-hurricane.
But without insurance coverage, trucks can’t leave the depots. In one night, a group of determined individuals can break the intricate chain that puts milk on your supermarket shelves.
In my case, because I recently had a daughter, and because I really wanted to gut punch my readers, milk isn’t the real problem—baby formula is. The first time you meet one of my protagonists, he’s staring at the empty shelf where the food for his three-month-old daughter normally rests.
He’s staring at it, and he’s wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do now.
And if I got it right, hopefully that’s a question you’ll ask yourself.
Worldbuilding is complex enough when you stick to some commonly-accepted fundamentals, like, oh, let’s say, land. What happens when you decide to shake up those fundamentals? M.K. Hutchins decided to make an aquatic change-up in Drift, and the results of that choice surprised even her.
M. K. HUTCHINS:
10,000 B.C.E. was not a good time for the Natufians — or, more specifically, the stands of wild cereal that they utilized for food. A shift towards a drier climate yielded fewer plants. So the Natufian changed, too. Instead of just gathering, they began clearing other plants off the land and scattering the seeds of rye, wheat, and barley. Over time, artificially selecting plants with desirable characteristics led to domestication — the greatest genetic engineering projects humans have ever undertaken — and to an agricultural lifestyle.
Okay, that’s a gross simplification of an exciting time in human history, but it’s a story that still fascinates me. Human culture changed because of the environment, and that environment in turn was drastically altered by human culture. Exploring way culture and environment interact — or cultural ecology — isn’t something I see a lot of in fantasy novels.
Completely reshape the environment — throw in magic, dragons, or some liches — and society still tends to look a lot like pseudo-Medieval Europe. Don’t get me wrong; there are outstanding books written in look-alike Earth analogues from all over the globe. I’m glad I get to enjoy them.
But if physics, if the laws of nature themselves, were different, wouldn’t we expect culture to be radically different, too? Often in worldbuilding it seems there’s an emphasis on physics-building and a dearth of culture-building.
When I first heard a professor talk about how the Maya envisioned the world on the back of a turtle surrounded by a watery hell, I knew I wanted to write a story inspired by that setting. Watery hell sounded fun. And instead of one great turtle, how about a bunch of drifting turtle-islands, all competing with each other?
But physics-building alone didn’t feel right for this story. My mind latched onto cultural ecology. How would this different environment shape culture?
Small islands would need to be fast to avoid larger islands that could conquer them. Heavy populations would slow them. But an agrarian society would need children — especially to care for the current population when it aged.
From here, the culture-building took off. Marriage, children, and romantic love all became stigmatized things of the poor. Married men, especially, were mocked for not being able to support themselves but having to rely, eventually, on their own children for support. Skilled artisans adopted apprentices instead of having children themselves, and the Handlers — those that fought hellish monsters and ruled the islands — set up a tax system to care for their elderly members.
I loved having not just the inherit conflicts of surviving on an island surrounded by monster-infested waters, but abundant social conflict. I loved setting up the three different systems for end-of-life care (farmer, artisan, and Handler). This left me with different classes of people, and different attitudes in those classes. I could have Handlers who were haughty and Handlers who pitied the poor for lacking the magical or mundane talents to become a Handler or artisan, respectively. I created farmers who honorably delayed marriage, and farmers who struggled with the stigma of being from a large family. Into the middle of all this, I threw my protagonist, a young man still deciding who he wants to be as he’s figuring out the way his world works — both physically and socially.
There’s lots of physics-building in my new novel, Drift. But it’s the cultural ecology — the integral way physics and culture interlink — that got me excited about this story.
Matthew Johnson writes short stories and thinks about words apparently quite a lot. Those two enthusiasms collide in his collection, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, which I read in a pre-press version and was rather impressed with. Below, Johnson muses on words, their provenance, and their power over us.
I’ve always loved the phrase “irregular verbs.” It conjures an image of something you might find at a yard sale or a bargain store, a box labelled One dozen verbs — slightly irregular. Inside you’d find a collection of words you’d never seen before: all of them weird, broken or misshapen in its own way, different not only from those regular verbs we use every day but from each other as well. What writer could resist?
To language nerds like me, though, irregular verbs are plenty interesting on their own. English has a lot of them — possibly more than any other language — and despite their name, they aren’t weird, rarely-used words that have survived due to obscurity. Instead they’re the most common verbs in our language, the heart of English: to be, to run, to sing, to fight, to grow, to read.
Unlike some other unusual features of English, like its vast vocabulary, irregular verbs aren’t a result of its tendency to assimilate undigested lumps of other languages. Instead they’re linguistic coelacanths, living relics both of the earliest roots of English — most English irregular verbs preserve what was the regular form of conjugation in early Indo-European languages, which was by changing the middle vowel sound of the word — and of the diversity it once had, now mostly lost to the printing press and mass media. In Chaucer’s day verbs, plurals and adjectival forms varied widely between different regions, cities, and even families, but by Shakespeare’s time we can already see a selection process happening: eggs winning out over eyren and kine giving way to cows. The rise of nation-states had something to do with it, too: “a nation is a language with an army,” as the saying goes, and if you want to have one nation then you need to have just one army and just one language.
Irregular verbs have to resist a more fundamental force as well: regularizing verbs and plurals is actually hard-wired into us, a basic part of how we develop language. Every mother and father has seen their children go through phases of first under-regularizing verbs and plurals and then over-regularizing. These mistakes, like goed, foots and boxen, can be such powerful symbols of childhood that we keep using them long after our children have learned the “correct” forms — private jokes that reaffirm our love by reminding us, parents and children both, that you were once my baby.
My own family had a rich dialect of words like these, from a variety of sources: over-regularized words (“gruntled,” an imaginary antonym to “disgruntled”), pronunciation errors (“squiddles” for squirrels), folk etymology (“hard work store”) and references to shared culture (“grundoon” for groundhog). This, in a roundabout way, is how I had the idea for the title story in Irregular Verbs and Other Stories: thinking about the way families, friends and couples develop their own private languages and imagining a place where this process is so accelerated that new languages spring up like mushrooms — and imagining what it would be like when someone you loved died, and the language you shared died with them.
Except that’s a lie. Or at least a simplification, the where-do-you-get-your ideas version of how the story came to be. The truth is that while it does have a Big Idea in it, it was just as much the product of a bunch of little ideas. There was the idea of “catching” a language, inspired by the famous William Burroughs line about language as a virus; an Indonesian phrasebook I had bought ten years before (part of a collection of phrasebooks and dictionaries, the crown jewel of which is a text on how to learn Haitian Creole that includes useful phrases like “He’ll die for sure this time” and “They beat the man so hard he soiled himself” and which illustrates the simple past tense with the sentence “He looks at the man’s head. He pulls out his machete; he strikes; he cuts it off”); even the pattern of the linoleum on the floor of my wife’s grandfather’s bathroom, which inspired the village in the story where people’s houses each have a private floor, where they’re free to speak their own languages, and the public floor where everyone takes part in the daily conversation that keeps their common language alive and intelligible.
Most of the stories in the book have similar origins. “Lagos” was inspired by a book about the World Bank, a New Yorker article, and email spam; “Long Pig” by a restaurant review and an unusually solicitous waitress; “Public Safety” by an article on fingerprints and a high school history lecture on the secret history of the metric system. The characters in them are similarly bad fits for their times and places: Inspector Louverture in “Public Safety,” the half-Haitian detective in a society where racism is science and reason is law; Safrat, the telepresence worker in “Lagos” who spends her days running vacuum cleaners half a world away, and tries to ignore what they whisper in her dreams; Geoffrey, the refugee from ancient Rome whose job is to help his countrymen adapt to life in 21st-century Canada, in “Another Country”; Sendiri Ang, in the title story, who risks isolating himself from his people and family to keep his wife’s language and memory alive. Like all of us, and the languages we share, the stories and the people in them are made up of odd parts — taken from a box of irregular verbs.
Look out! It’s a robot uprising! Yeah, okay — but what then? That’s what Daniel H. Wilson was wondering in Robogenesis, his sequel to the massively successful novel Robopocalypse. Does he have answers? Find out below.
DANIEL H. WILSON:
Recently, I was talking to an older engineer-type gentleman at a cocktail party and trying to explain my career path from scientist to science fiction writer. In the middle of the conversation, he blurted out: “Wait, you’re telling me that you wasted ten years of your life!?”
He kind of had a point.
Despite ten years spent studying robotics, the most technologically advanced project I have worked on in the past year is a pretend space ship simulator in my basement – for my kids, I swear. Don’t get me wrong, the S.S. Coraline Wilson required the wiring of buttons and the scripting of space simulation software, but no machine learning algorithms or articulated arms were employed.
Even so, I don’t think I could have written Robogenesis without spending a decade in the trenches, desperately trying to learn math and science.
The biggish idea behind Robogenesis is that I did my best to realistically consider how human beings might survive a war between multiple titanic artificial intellects.
On its surface, Robogenesis is a thriller – a novel that follows regular people (and a few robots, and some in-betweens) who are fighting and surviving in a world transformed by the collapse of technology. There are no equations or Hidden Markov Models or Monte Carlo methods in Robogenesis, yet the story and its players are deeply rooted in what I have learned about how machines think.
Unlike creatures in the natural world, fellow members of an AI species do not form a natural class – each one may be radically different from the next, depending on what architecture they were built on and which datasets they were trained on. The AI may have completely different priorities when it comes to interacting with humankind. Was the machine even designed to interact with people? Or is it a deep thinker, built only to probe the mysteries of the universe? Would the machines try to manipulate us, ignore us, or eradicate us (as I considered in the Big Idea I wrote for Robopocalypse in 2011)?
So, my job writing Robogenesis was simple: just describe god-like artificial intelligences with truly alien perspectives and devilishly complex motivations. Oh, and I needed to make it damned realistic, because if I have anything unique to offer to this trope it is my perspective as a former roboticist.
I began by looking at the current state-of-the-art.
As you know, we already live with a lot of low-profile artificial intelligence. When you speak to Siri on an iPhone, your voice is sent to the cloud, processed by AI algorithms, and the translation returned. Facebook has AIs that sift through your photos and perform face recognition. Google’s AIs read your gmail and target ads accordingly. At the airport, whole body scanners literally see us naked and then an AI decides whether to pass on the image to a human screener.
(Yes, the robots see us naked.)
I extrapolated these trends into the future, ignoring the simplistic scenario in which a haywire AI wants to kill all humans. Instead, I considered what happens when really complex, incredibly disparate, and potentially bizarre artificial intelligences proliferate across the world’s technological infrastructure?
As I wrote Robogenesis, it dawned on me that an “apocalypse” is not really the end.
When we say apocalypse, we usually mean the fall of civilization (aka “the end of life as we know it”). But every new technology alters life as we know it. Automobiles, phones, computers, TV, the Internet – all have radically changed society and life as we knew it.
We all live through a mini-apocalypse with every new technology that is introduced. The disruptive effect of technology is so pervasive throughout history as to be a part of the human condition. Civilization has been under assault since its inception, and we have always found a way to survive.
In Robogenesis, I tried to take this basic human struggle to a frightening next level – pushing my characters to the limits of their ingenuity as they struggle to adapt to powerful sentient technologies. Only time will tell if I succeeded, but I sure do hope that those ten years in the trenches were worth it.
Los Angeles is often seen as a magical city, but it’s never been magical in quite the same way as it is in California Bones, the latest novel by Greg Van Eekhout. Here it’s dark and noirish and sinister in all the good ways — and yes, before you ask, not only did I like the book, I gave it a cover blurb. Here’s Greg to give you a glimpse of how California Bones came to be.
GREG VAN EEKHOUT:
Wizards get their powers from eating the remains of extinct magical creatures, and the La Bra Tar Pits in Los Angeles are a particularly rich source of such remains. There, osteomancers have retrieved the preserved skeletons of mammoths, dire wolves, Colombian dragons, American wyverns, Western griffins, and suchlike. Eat the creatures’ bones, get its power. Eat an osteomancer who’s eaten the creature’s bones, and you get not just the creature’s power, but remnants of whatever the osteomancer has eaten before.
That’s the basic premise of California Bones, the first volume in my osteomancy trilogy, and much like the bones, the idea came right from the tar pits. I grew up in Los Angeles, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t think the tar pits were the most amazing things in the universe. Ponds of dark, bubbling, eldritch goop lurk in the middle of town, and concealed by the goop are the bones of some of the most charismatic megafauna that ever walked the face of the Earth. And that’s not even made up. It’s for reals. And it’s awesomely weird. All it took was a bit of a nudge to push it over into fantasy.
I wanted to write about a place where the tar pits were the de facto center of the city, where the Los Angeles that grew up around them matched their weirdness. I drew upon the Venice canals, built in 1905 by Abbot Kinney to replicate Venice, Italy, complete with gondolas and the whole works. In my version of LA, the city’s chief hydromancer, William Mulholland, has grown the canals into a major transportation network and expanded them to form a mandala of churning hydraulic power that generates a magic to rival that of the osteomantic bones. Disney’s theme park pumps an extract of unicorn horn in the air to make visitors feel like they’ve come to the happiest place on earth. Griffith Observatory, the copper-domed landmark building overlooking the Los Angeles basin, is a royal palace. Tito’s Tacos is still Tito’s Tacos. Likewise, Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. I wanted readers familiar with LA to take pleasure in how I’ve altered things, and those who aren’t familiar with or don’t particularly care about LA to still find it interestingly strange.
I wanted to tell a heist story, and I wanted to tell a story about living and surviving under an oppressive regime, and I wanted to tell a story about how, in a world where you can trust no one, forming a created family of friends whom you trust with your life can be a powerful, subversive act.
I wanted to write about all these things. So I wrote a short story. Because novels? Novels are hard. Who writes novels? Weirdoes write novels. And when I was forming all these ideas, I wasn’t yet that kind of weirdo. The result was “The Osteomancer’s Son,” which appeared in Asimov’s, and if you want you can listen to a very fine podcast version at the venerable PodCastle. Long after the story was published, ideas and the world and the characters kept scratching at me, and I took that as a sign that maybe I wasn’t done with them yet. I was also encouraged by a non-dismissible number of people who told me they wanted more. There was even a Hollywood nibble that ultimately amounted to nothing but at least made me feel shiny for about a week. So, when I finished the second of two middle-grade novels I was contracted for, and I wanted to spend some time writing stories about adults who use adult language and find themselves in adult situations, the time felt right to step into the tar.
If you decide to give California Bones a try and end up liking it, I can tell you that you won’t have to wait long for the rest of the trilogy. Book 2, Pacific Fire, is scheduled for January 2015, and Book 3 is already in my editor’s hands. Along the way, there’ll be dead seas, evil twins, sabotage missions, scams and heists, catacombs beneath Beverly Hills, a patchwork dragon, scary children, palace intrigue, family legacies, and tacos. These are the things. I had a lot of fun writing about them, and I hope you enjoy some of the same things I do.
As the title of this feature suggests, big ideas are important to the writing of books. But big ideas aren’t the only thing about writing a book — and as Jo Anderton found out writing Guardian, other aspects of what make a novel fly will find their way into writing, sometimes almost without the author intending it.
The Veiled Worlds books are all based on one Big Idea, but it’s taken me this long to work out that’s not really what they’re about.
It all started with me wondering why so many of the fantasy stories I know and love are set in pre-industrial worlds. So you live in a world with magic in it? That’s great. I’m jealous of you (yes, I actually am), but let’s see what we can do with that magic. Can we make it more accessible to more people? Can we make it more efficient? Let’s use it to create cities, to run industry, to wage wars. Essentially, let’s industrialize it.
A magical industrial revolution was my Big Idea. A world where technology is built on, and run by, magic. So I needed a kind of magic that could be industrialized, and ended up with pions: semi-sentient particles that can be persuaded to rearrange matter itself. Instead of a select few magicians living in towers, everyone has access to pions – to some degree. If you’re particularly well educated or connected, you can create art or command armies. Everyone else gets to work in factories.
But everything has its cost, doesn’t it? The cost of our industrial revolution is pollution, and the same rule applies. Instead of smog and rubbish, however, the cost of this particular magical revolution is debris. A waste product that interferes with the pion systems that run so much of the world, from food production to sewerage to weaponry. Someone has to go around collecting debris before it becomes a problem, and these people are essentially magical garbage collectors, performing a dirty, underpaid job at the bottom of the social heap.
Except maybe debris isn’t quite what everyone thinks it is…
There you have it, that was the Big Idea. Industrialized magic and a mystery at the heart of the world. But you know what? That’s not what the books are about.
I love Big Ideas, I’m addicted to them. But I’m learning that ideas are all well and good, and they might be the creative spark that drives you to write a story or even read one, but they are meaningless without the personal.
Let’s backtrack a little. There was stuff happening in my life while I developing this Big Idea. My husband lost his job in nasty, stressful circumstances. That kind of thing can hurt a person. It knocked around his sense of identity and self worth, and of course I felt every blow.
In Debris, the first book in the Veiled Worlds, the main character, Tanyana, loses her job too. She starts the book as a highly skilled pion binder, at the top of her profession, but by the end of the first chapter she’s lost her skills and her employment, and is forced to become a debris collector. The very lowest rung of society. Her struggle to reestablish a sense of identity and, ultimately, find purpose in her life again, that’s what this trilogy is about.
Thing is, that just kind of happened. Unplanned. Maybe there was some part of my writerly brain figuring all this stuff out – I’d like to think so. But I was so fixated on my Big Idea that I didn’t notice the personal weave its way in and around the telling. Only while I was working on the third book, Guardian, and trying to work out what the point of this whole trilogy thing was, did I understand.
Each book in the Veiled Worlds trilogy explores a different aspect of that original Big Idea. Guardian is about gods. When magic is technologized and no longer spiritual, what role do gods, demons and the figures from myth play? Do they become nothing more than quaint morality stories to teach children, or cultural symbols institutionalized by government? Or is there a hidden truth behind the legends? And, most importantly, if you were one of those figures from myth, marginalized and forgotten in the modern age, how would you feel?
What if you sacrifice everything to save the world over and over again, but no one believes in you anymore? What does that do to your identity? Your sense of purpose?
So you see, that same, deeply personal struggle found its way into Guardian too. Only this time, it’s not just Tanyana trying to work out how to keep her sanity and pay the rent. It’s forgotten constructs, abandoned people and lost ‘gods’ (or whatever we should call them) all fighting for identity and a reason to be.
The personal journey from loss of identity to reestablishing purpose is central to the entire trilogy, and intricately connected to the Big Idea. Industrialization and modernization are about just this same kind of change – a broad loss and rebuilding of social identity.
Which all sounds awfully fancy. But really, it happened almost by accident. I just wanted to see what a world with industrialized magic would look like, and then my husband lost his job, and they joined forces to make a story. The Big Idea, and the personal.
SARAH BETH DURST:
This book was born at a stop light. One random day, I waited, blinker on, to turn left and thought, “What if I didn’t turn? What if I never turned?”
I turned. But Lauren doesn’t.
In The Lost, Lauren is supposed to go to work at her dead-end job while she waits to hear the results of her mother’s latest medical test. But instead of taking that left, she drives straight. And drives and drives until she runs out of gas in a town called Lost, which is full of only lost things and lost people.
So that’s the big idea behind The Lost: What happens when someone is lost in every sense of the word?
Lauren feels as empty as her gas tank, and her life feels meaningless. But she’s terrified that her sick mother might be dying without her. In order to escape from Lost, she’ll have to (quite literally) find herself, with the help of a mysterious man called the Finder and a knife-wielding six year old girl.
I started this book with a list — a three page single-spaced list of everything I could think of that could be lost:
This list is the oldest thing in my drafts folder for the entire trilogy, and I kept coming back to it as I built and populated the town.
The concept behind the town is that it’s filled with lost things. Only lost things. To live, people have to scavenge through the piles of lost baseball hats and lost cell phones, and then barter for what they need. Ice cream, for example, is nearly impossible to find, but there’s no shortage of half-eaten sandwiches and soggy French fries. Mail piles up in the post office but can’t ever be delivered. Feral dogs roam the alleyways. And a single red balloon always floats over the town.
I fell in love with this quirky, creepy town.
I also played “Hotel California” pretty much on repeat.
Writing this book turned out to be a surprisingly intense experience. I wanted to create a dreamlike feel, so I chose to use first-person present tense. This makes the pov very, very tight. I laughed when Lauren laughed, and I cried when she cried. I also spent many late nights wanting to shake my fist at the sky and shout, “Verbs!!!” Dratted present tense.
The other choice I made while writing this book was to write it more organically than I usually do. Usually I love my outlines and don’t veer from them. But for this book, I let myself get lost with Lauren and followed her where she led.
Best part about getting lost in the writing is the surprises. Like Claire. Claire is a six year old girl who wears a tattered princess dress and carries a teddy bear and a very sharp knife. She wasn’t in my original outline, but when Lauren got cornered by an angry mob, she walked out of the crowd, took Lauren by the hand, and calmly led her out:
Glancing back, I see the mob has spilled back onto the street. They are watching me. So far, they aren’t following, but that could change. “If you know a place to hide…”
The girl switches direction, pulling me into the alley between the barber shop and a decrepit triple-decker house. She still doesn’t speak.
I don’t know why I’m trusting her. “Are you helping me, or dragging me someplace private to cut me to pieces and feed me to your teddy bear? Just curious.”
The girl looks at me with her wide eyes. “My name is Claire. And my teddy bear is not hungry today.”
She became one of the major characters, of course. I mean, seriously, what writer in his/her right mind would let a knife-wielding six year old just walk away?
In a way, she’s emblematic of the entire trilogy: the good that can come from loss, the surprises you can find when you are lost, and the way your life can change in a moment.
The Lost will be followed by The Missing in December and then The Found in April. And I am happy and excited and thrilled to introduce you to Lauren and welcome you to Lost!
The concept of economics is one that wends through our entire lives — but what if we lived in a world where economics were even more pervasive than it is right here and right now? Michael Martineck has been thinking about just that world in his novel The Milkman, and today he’s here to offer you a tall, frosty glimpse of what that world would be like.
The big idea of The Milkman is a world with no governments. It didn’t start out that way. I was going to write about a guy who brings milk to your home. Can you imagine? You wouldn’t have to go to the store for it. The guy would traverse his neighborhood, getting little glimpses of peoples lives. Turns out that was a real thing, not that long ago, so I needed a new idea.
I entered college in 1984, intending to learn whatever I needed to be a writer. This would be easy. My father raised an eyebrow and said, “You’ve got to write about something.” I picked economics because of course everyone wants to read about economics. It’s right up there with dairy delivery.
Studying economics is actually more interesting than it sounds. It’s not about money. It is about people interacting with people. It only looks like it’s about money because capitalism is so profoundly powerful. The fears that George Orwell spells out in 1984, of a world gone terribly to the left, are ironic. It is now the other way around. Which got me thinking.
What would capitalism look like, cut from the ties of sovereignty? No laws. Hell, no rules. We are taught that markets are self-regulating. They urge themselves ever toward harmonious equilibrium. The invisible hand of the great and powerful market guides us all. It should be heeded, not impeded. Big government is the villain, caging our animal spirits, wrestling the market’s hand to the table.
How would society function without legal structure? I’m not talking about weak governments. I’m talking gone. What happens when people are governed only by the laws of economics and physics? It’s a big idea. Huge. Too big for me to write about. For 30 years it tumbled about in my head like a nickel in a dryer. Clunk, clunk, clunk.
One day I listened to Robert Parker talk about how Boston shapes his Spenser novels. The setting is almost a character, a participant in every mystery. I had a setting that acted like a character. Why not put the character in a mystery. Except, murder in the Free World – the world of The Milkman – breaks no laws because, well, there are no laws.
There are budgets, bottoms lines, and expectations regarding return on investment. Killing has costs. Someone should be made to pay for it. Literally. Breaches in corporate policy and suspected sabotage need to be investigated and assessed and liabilities appropriately assigned.
Not that this is justice. Funds are impersonal. Money cannot make you stop missing a person, place or thing. Sometimes you miss something even more when it’s gone, when it was taken for granted. For example, maybe you don’t think about how – I don’t know – milk is safe to drink from any old carton you grabbed at the grocery. You don’t ponder whether or not it is free of hormones and harmful bacteria because it has to be by regulation. Until there is no regulation.
The most cost-effective way to make milk is to not worry so much about the safety. Sure, it might kill off an infant here or there. Nothing’s perfect.
That doesn’t mean we stop trying. As my characters work through my setting they try to right wrongs. Regardless of how heartless the environment, they act like people and people care. Under the oppression of emperors and czars, bureaucracies and banks, people love and live. We still try to make things right. We fight for fairness, forcing it into the equation even when it doesn’t fit the math. When it means nothing to the bottom line.
The structure of the Free World is different from our own. The people in it are very much the same. The biggest idea in my novel is the one I didn’t have. It emerged through the characters. The world’s always been screwed up. I screwed it up a new way and realized there would still be some who would chip and chisel, carving out decency. I wrote a story about the dispassionate cruelty of economics through a milkman who touches a number of lives. So I kept my original title.
If you’ve read science fiction in the last quarter century, then you know the work John Harris: His artwork has graced the covers of writers such as Ben Bova, Allen Steele, Orson Scott Card among others, including, of course, me, specifically on my Old Man’s War series of books.
For those folks who want to get a closer look at his work, there’s The Art of John Harris: Beyond the Horizon, a very handsome collection of covers and other SF-related work, for which I was honored to write the introduction.
As a special treat, Harris has offered up some commentary on a selected covers that he’s created for my work; I’ve put them into a gallery and added some comments on my own.
Click on any picture to begin the slideshow.
Signed, limited edition available here.
In today’s Big Idea, Howard Tayler, the brains behind the multiply-Hugo nominated Schlock Mercenary Web comic, tells you how the little things — the really little things — mean a lot for his latest graphic novel compilation, Longshoreman of the Apocalypse.
So, I had this image in my head. Someone was firing artillery inside a rotating space-city, but was missing their targets because the artillery piece wasn’t smart enough to aim correctly within a rotating reference frame. The obvious solution, the soldier’s solution, is not “quick, do the math!” No, the solution is “I’m going to have to walk my shots.”
Rotating space-cities are standard fare in science fiction. This wasn’t really a “big idea,” but it was the awesome moment I found myself aiming for, and as a discovery writer, “aiming for” is an awful lot like “walking my shots.”
The big idea? That was collateral damage, struck by a stray shell as I walked round after round toward the moment I wanted to hit.
See, for somebody to be playing with artillery indoors, something has to already have gone very wrong. The alternatives to using the artillery need to be worse. And more than that, there needs to be some complexity to the problem, something that will justify far more than just the preventative abuse of ballistic rounds.
Have you ever considered just how fortunate we are that nuclear weapons are phenomenally difficult to build? The key materials are rare, and the equipment required to work with those materials is expensive, and when all of the other complications are factored in, it’s far more likely for the back-yard nuclear engineer to die of radiation poisoning than to create anything more potent than a very toxic hand-warmer.
But what if something with nuclear yield was easy to build? What if you could carry it around and it wouldn’t make you sick? What if you could carry it around and nobody could tell you had it, and you could set it off by pulling a pin?
The Schlock Mercenary universe is an energy-rich place. “Annie Plants” convert teency pellets of neutronium into energy (via some black-box handwavium that I introduced back when I sloppier), but those devices are so heavy, and so full of fail-safes, that they don’t fit the bill.
Schlockiverse engineers can, however, create and contain antimatter, one atomic nuclei at a time, inside carbon fullerene buckyballs. And if I let them do that, my story has some ultra-fine black dust in it, a teaspoon of which can level a city.
Schlock Mercenary is, at its heart, comedy. And I suppose it says something about me that when I go looking for a funny story, I arrive at multi-megaton yields being juggled by non-engineers who want to protest the way their clunky, stupid government is handling the food shortage.
Longshoreman of the Apocalypse is a fun title, and it promises an apocalypse. Oh, look! I have antimatter in a brown paper bag…
Longshoreman of the Apocalypse: The Schlock Mercenary store. Orders between now and June 3rd will signed.
Airplanes make you nervous? You’re not alone — Author Sarah Lotz, for one, feels your pain (or at least, your anxiety). But where Lotz diverges from most people who get twitchy about air travel is that she used that unease as a launching pad, as it were, for creativity — resulting in her new novel, The Three. She’s here now to tell you how this story took flight.
I’ve always wanted to write a novel about plane crashes. Part of this is because I’m flight-phobic, so air travel has always held an extra dollop of dread and fascination for me. Those of us who suffer from aerophobia are aware that it’s an irrational fear – we all know that statistically we’re more likely to die in a freak shopping trolley incident than in a plane crash. This doesn’t stop us from mainlining valium and secretly believing, like Charles Grodin’s character in Midnight Run, that planes are just too big to stay in the air.
So that’s where the initial idea came from – a phobia. Then came: but what if there wasn’t just one air accident, but several on the same day? That would send the world’s media into a frenzy. Plane crashes tend to dominate the news – the recent global coverage of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 tragedy is a case in point. Next, I started thinking about survivors. What if they were children? And what if they’d escaped what should have been certain death relatively unscathed? The tabloids would be all over the story with the fervour they’d display if Princess Di rose from the dead. Then came: What if a bunch of conspiracy theorists or religious fundamentalists decided to focus on the ‘miraculous’ child survivors, and began to spread the notion that their survival and the tragedies were signs of alien activity or evidence of the forthcoming apocalypse? How would that play out? And how would it play out if they were right?
I know: So. Many. Questions.
I decided that if I wanted to make this a truly global story, the planes needed to crash on four different continents, which would also feed the conspiracists’ theories. And as it would be lazy to choose cities and countries I was familiar with simply for convenience, I made a shortlist of possible locations. In the final draft, one of the planes crashes into Florida Everglades, another into the heart of the notorious Aokigahara ‘suicide forest’ at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan, the third slams into Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s most populous township, and the fourth, a British low-cost charter flight, falls out of the sky off the coast of Portugal. As the survivors, their guardians, the conspiracists and those investigating the crashes would all be from diverse backgrounds and cultures, I knew I’d have to do a great deal of research to have any hope of making their narratives believable.
Turns out ‘a great deal’ was an understatement. The research took months, and included interrogating commercial pilots and air crash investigators, travelling to Japan to visit the Aokigahara forest, studying NTSB reports, riding along with South African paramedics, delving into eschatology, looking into Japanese economic history, dallying on conspiracy forums chatting to people who believe that aliens really are here, and investigating the influence of the religious right on the US political landscape. I also read several CVR transcripts of pilots’ last words as their planes went down – never do this, it’s incredibly upsetting.
At the end of all this, I had too much material, too many characters and I needed to find a way in to the story that would reflect the global scope of it, but wouldn’t involve 400 pages of exposition and info-dumping. And I’ll be honest, my first three attempts were awful. Taking a leaf out of Max Brooks’s brilliantly structured World War Z, I chose to write it in a way that wasn’t necessarily conventional, marrying first person ‘interview’ narratives with non-fiction accounts and framing it as a book within a book, written by a possibly biased journalist. This also allowed me to play around with potentially unreliable narrators.
Have I pulled it off? I honestly don’t know. But I’m glad I took the risk. Writing a novel about air disasters may have made my aerophobia worse, but stepping way outside my comfort zone has meant that whenever I’m asked for writerly advice (admittedly, this doesn’t happen often), I can now say, with complete honesty, that sometimes it’s best to write what you don’t know.
People! I am traveling in time (literally, as I wrote up this entry last night and then scheduled it to go live in the morning) to tell you about Steven S. Drachman’s latest book, Watt O’Hugh Underground — the second in his series about a time-traveling adventurer. And here in the present, Drachman is here to tell you what it is about time travel that makes it such a fine subject for fiction (and for his series).
Why are time travel books so popular? It really has nothing to do with meeting George Washington. (You wouldn’t get a meeting with him anyway, even if you could time travel!) And the idea of wandering through Paris in 1742, while thrilling, has the same sort of exotic tourist appeal as any locale you will never visit – the mountains of Kazakhstan, for example. Rather, we love the idea of time travel because as human beings, we inevitably try without success to undo the mistakes of the past, or the missed opportunities. The longer we live, the more we have to undo. And for most of us, it all comes down to one foolhardy instant after which everything changed. We are regret machines.
Most people have that moment; does the human race have one too, a split second after which nothing can ever be the same again?
I’ve written a couple of books about a late19th century gunslinger named Watt O’Hugh. Watt is a man who occasionally must (reluctantly) shoot people, and even more occasionally (but less reluctantly) engage in a bit of “pully hawly.” We called hanky-panky “pully hawly” in the 1870s for reasons today remembered only by G-d, and it was more frequent than you might think; note the success of Madame Restelle, abortionist to the children of the wealthy, who earned herself an imposing mansion on 5th Avenue and 58th Street. So: in the 1870s, everyone loved a bit of pully hawly.
My books have demons and oracles, floating silver orbs, a woman who can turn into a swarm of butterflies, a mysterious world with two moons, and flying peacocks. They’re books about shooting, time Roaming, terribly evil villains, valiant but flawed heroes, punching, spitting, dragons and PG-rated sex. They are books about robbing trains and prison breaks. The biggest idea in the series is that pully hawly is more fun than shooting a guy. The shooting makes the yarn more ripping.
When I started the series, its structure – a nonagenarian writing the fantastical story of his life as fast as he can – was an amusing framing device. Now as an older man, I’m more reflective; next to my inevitably comical death, this is what I will be remembered for. And some ideas have slipped in there somewhere.
Time Roamers (a group Watt O’Hugh eventually joins) can visit the future and the past, but unless they have an “utterly pure heart” – which the redoubtable Watt certainly does not – they can leave not so much as a footprint, and they float past you like a breeze.
This is, after all, what we all do, Roamer or not. We revisit that moment in the past, and we can change nothing.
For Watt, that day is May 13, 1863, when, still a New York city clerk in his early twenties, he takes the beautiful socialite Lucy Billings on a midnight boat ride across the Upper Bay, docking on a highly fictional towhead with a rocky shore and a couple of trees. While he has asked the glamorous Miss Billings to marry him on many occasions, it should be clear to him that tonight is the night. Still he stays quiet, and two months later, the Draft Riots take Lucy from him forever, and, with her, a life of love and also tremendous wealth.
He will go on to fight in the Civil War and in a now-forgotten battle in the Chinese Hell of the Innocent Dead, run cattle across the plains, roam Time to its very dawn, feud viciously with J.P. Morgan, lead a spectacular Wild West Show and escape a deadling-infested Leadville, Colorado in the company of Oscar Wilde and a Tzadik from Kaifeng. His life will be heroic, but filled with regret over a few words not uttered during one Magic instant. Of course, once he learns to roam Time, Watt will revisit that evening, hiding among the trees, impotently urging his younger self to say the words, just as you or I might revisit such a pivotal moment, just as hopelessly, in our minds.
When did humanity itself jump the shark?
For my novel, I chose a day in October, in the First Century, in China.
In the year 9, upon ascending the throne, Emperor Wang Mang ordered that every peasant should be a landowner; he abolished the slave trade; he decreed that the power of the moneylenders be broken; and he commanded China to begin working as one family, and to grow great together.
The Yangtze overflowed its banks, famine ensued, and not only did Wang Mang lose his throne and his life during the following October’s Red Eyebrow rebellion, but historians repudiated his ideas. They vilified an Emperor whose arrival into this world was heralded by the flight of a thousand dragons in the early morning skies, and whose ideas grew naturally from the Earth, like a lovely blue dragonberry flower.
Without Wang Mang’s murder at that one fateful second, my novels surmise, the peasantry and the aristocracy would have become like brother and sister, and other nations would have sought to emulate China’s success.
We would have been spared Communist revolutions that ended with purges and bloodshed. Spared our corrupt, murderous, extremist, bloody and heartless capitalism, and the quick toxic death from which only roaches and gigantic sheep-sized rats will emerge alive a hundred years from now.
My novels imagine a character named Billy Golden, the one Roamer with an utterly pure heart, who sees a future that could have been and grows obsessed, over thousands and thousands of lifetimes, with undoing Emperor Wang’s murder; and my novels imagine the reincarnated bastard son of the Emperor’s crippled court poet, Yang Hsiung, traveling the 19th century globe to save humanity.
“Here was Wang Mang, the one for whom we’d been waiting,” sadly sighs the Tzadik from Kaifeng. “The one for whom we still wait.”
We all still wait for the past.
Lest my Big Idea sounds too serious, I will assure you again that Watt O’Hugh’s Memoir is mostly a series of weird books about derring do, flitting through time, flying in the clouds, fighting various monstrosities (including a ferocious pond monster), shooting people, and enjoying the occasional pully hawly.
First, a disclosure: I read a galley of Monica Byrne’s debut novel The Girl in the Road and liked it enough to give it a blurb — as did Neil Gaiman, Helene Wecker and Kim Stanley Robinson. And so in reading this particular Big Idea, I find myself not entirely surprised that a book this strong has come out of an equally strong moment of emotion, and, yes, despair. Byrne tells you now of that moment, standing by a set of tracks.
Was my life worth continuing after trauma?
On the morning of July 22, 2012, I was standing by railroad tracks in Geneva, Illinois. I’d just come from a successful reading of one of my plays, commissioned by a local company; and was waiting for the train into Chicago to meet a dear friend for lunch.
But I’d just gotten some bad news that had triggered a lot of old pain. I’d slept badly, dreaming over and over that I was at a glamorous dinner party, rising in a gown with my champagne flute to insist to the gala that I was happy. But no one believed me.
I saw the train coming down the tracks, with its triad of bright lights, like a celestial insect, and the thought came into my head: “In the next thirty seconds I could lie in its path and lay this burden down.”
Instead, I focused on the dear friend I was going to have lunch with, and pointedly walked away from the tracks.
A few minutes later, shaky but safe in my seat with Illinois suburbs passing by, I thought, Well, that’s what The Girl in the Road is about.
I put that scene right in the beginning of the novel. But instead of being set in Illinois, it’s in Kerala, India; instead of 2012, it’s 2068. My hero Meena Ramachandran is waiting for a train to Mumbai and steps out onto the tracks. She’s pulled to safety at the last second. But the act continues to haunt her.
Meena and Mariama—the other hero of The Girl in the Road—live forty years apart and on different continents. They experience severe trauma and are abruptly catapulted out into the world. One stows away on an oil caravan headed east across the Sahara and falls under the spell of an enigmatic patroness who calls herself Yemaya. The other swims out to a floating pontoon bridge called the Trail, an energy-harvesting device largely abandoned by its makers, that spans the Arabian Sea. They’re both headed to Ethiopia, the home of Dinkenesh (known in the west as “Lucy,” the skeleton of our earliest human ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis) where their stories—and their traumas—converge.
Along the way, both Meena and Mariama are repeatedly tempted to “lie down in the road”—to die, to stop existing, to opt out early from the web of karma that plays out, not for moral reasons, but simply because love and violence are both forms of energy, like heat or light, which have already set us in motion from the moment we’re born, from the actions and choices of thousands of ancestors who’ve come before us, and knock us across the world like billiard balls until we come to rest, by nature or by choice.
And yes, the choice to exit early does exist.
But so does the choice to continue living. And not only to keep living, but to radically choose life, to grapple directly with the energies you’ve inherited, and so use them and transform them to build an entirely new life that is more bold, more bright, and more beautiful than you’d ever imagined you could have.
Meena learns what happens when you make that choice, instead.
In other words, The Girl in the Road is my 90,000-word answer to the question “Was my life worth continuing after trauma?”
But I could also say it in one word: “Yes.”
The Bad Guys: You know ’em, you hate ’em. But there’s also some truth in the saying that everyone is the hero of their own story — and that it’s not always clear cut that in a conflict one side is purely good and the other purely evil. Will McIntosh wrestled with the ideas of villains and heroes for his novel Defenders; here’s what he found out.
I don’t particularly like stories with villains. I prefer the good and bad in characters to be more a matter of degree, and, ideally, subject to individual interpretation.
I prefer Frankenstein to Dracula, for instance. Count Dracula is a bad guy, no doubt about it. Stab him in the heart and no one sheds a tear. But what are we supposed to feel as the Frankenstein monster burns? He kills people, he’s a psychopath, but he was thrust into the role of monster–he didn’t choose it. Maybe Victor Frankenstein is the villain of the piece, but here again, it’s complicated. The good doctor screwed up royally, but that wasn’t his intent, and intentions count when we’re judging good versus evil.
When I set out to turn my short story “Defenders” into a novel, I didn’t want one species to be the clear cut villains. This was challenging, because the alien Luyten invade Earth, unprovoked, electrocuting and melting billions of people. The path of least resistance would have been to cast the Luyten in the role of villain, but I wanted things to be more ambiguous.
Without giving too much away, there are three species in Defenders: 1) humans, 2) the invading Luyten, who can read human minds, and 3) the defenders, genetically-engineered warriors humans create to battle the Luyten.
My aim was to weave a story where at various points each of these players feels backed into a corner, with no choice but to lash out. Often they do have a choice, but their nature, their limitations, lead them to conclude they don’t.
To partially absolve the Luyten, for example, I created a backstory where they were forced to flee their home planet, and spent decades heading toward Earth–the closest viable refuge. It never occurred to them that Earth might be inhabited by another sentient species, and when they arrived and surreptitiously sampled humans’ minds, they realized humans didn’t have the constitution to share their world with millions of clairvoyant aliens. They decided their options were to invade, or perish.
As the story unfolds, the defenders make a strong case as the villains of the piece. They have the emotional maturity of adolescents, they’re socially inept, and they’re apt to fly into a violent rage over petty grievances. Whose fault is that, though? They were made that way. They were created to be warriors, knowing and loving nothing but war. They’re Frankenstein monsters.
The defenders are also war veterans, and my hope is that this makes them sympathetic as well. Without their sacrifice, humanity might have ceased to exist.
Does that make humanity, who created the defenders, the real villains? Well, what choice did they have? Clairvoyant aliens had invaded, and were wiping them out. They had to do something, and fast.
Which brings us full circle, back to the Luyten.
My hope is readers will feel that a case can be made for any of the three species being most responsible for the cataclysm that unfolds.
While there are unquestionably villains in the world, I think most human conflict takes this form, where the villain of the story depends on your perspective. While I was planning this post, my wife reminded me of the ever-shifting alliances in the novel Nineteen Eigthy-Four, where Oceania is at war with Eurasia and allied with Eastasia on one day, and allied with Eurasia and at war with Eastasia the next. Yes; one day someone is your sworn enemy, the next, they’re your ally. Maybe that’s why I’m uneasy writing about villains.