Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Anton Strout

Anton Strout loves his city, even if he expresses it slightly off-center ways. I’ll him explain how it all works, particularly in the context of his latest urban fantasy novel Stonecast.

ANTON STROUT:

Ever since I crushed in a man’s skull and dropped his lifeless body two miles down into Gramercy Park I knew it was love.

But that’s not the only fun of writing a gargoyle driven series, although crushing fleshy humans is certainly high up on The List.

Long have I loved New York City since moving to the borough of Manhattan in 1994. The Big Apple is after all steeped in a long, glorious history, much of it dark and bloody.  Walk around the South Street Seaport when it’s late and practically abandoned and one can easily imagine the shuffling and shambling horrors of the night creeping up the cobblestoned street behind you. It’s easy to see why it’s become the city I’ve set both my urban fantasy series in, and despite the amount of destruction I’ve fictionally caused New York, it does come from a place of love and respect.

My love affair with the City That Never Sleeps started in my first four books that featured paranormal detective Simon Canderous, but it was only with The Spellmason Chronicles—Alchemystic and the just released Stonecast—that the city’s art and architecture literally gets a chance to come to life… in the shape of gargoyles, or as they prefer to be called, grotesques. Am I disturbed that all of my work is about Manhattan, my love for it, and apparently, my unsated desire to destroy it? Not particularly, since there’s a lot here to inspire a writer wanting to blend the macabre, the humorous and the urban.

One of my favorite views of the Big Apple has always been the nighttime panoramic view of Manhattan driving in from Queens over the 59th Street Bridge.  The whole city is spread out in all its colorfully lit glory which even after twenty years I still find breathtaking.  But once actually in Manhattan, that’s where the true beauty lies, especially if you’re hoping to find something fantastical… like, say, the hidden details of gargoyles in the architecture.

I’ve been obsessed with the creatures since college after learning their decorative and functional purposes in real world architectural design.  And once moving to Manhattan it only increased.  I highly recommend checking out GargoylesOfNewYork.com to see some fantastically creepy examples of the myriad figures carved into the skyscrapers here.  Some are full bodied, but many are just the heads and faces of creatures which I can’t help but imagine coming to life, pulling the rest of their bodies free from the building facades. Even now, I look up into the night sky of the city and hope to catch the shadow of open wings racing along the concrete canyons.

So, yes, the idea of silent stone sentinels living through the centuries was easy to imagine and want to bring to life, and not just because I watched Disney’s Gargoyles.  Several years ago the opportunity came up to write a story for an urban fantasy anthology, and I jumped at the chance to tell this one small tale about one particular gargoyle and the family he had been set to watch over centuries ago. In figuring out the moments leading up to that short story and the moments that might follow it, I realized that there was an even grander tale to be told, in novel form.

And thus The Spellmason Chronicles was born, allowing me to bring the actual city of New York to life, infuse it with magic, and yes, destroy it. You always hurt the ones you love, right?  But really: why create such wonderful toys like living stone creatures only to leave them with nothing to smash and destroy?

That’s just cruel.  The Spellmason Chronicles:  Come for the gargoyles, alchemy, and architecture, stay for the smashy smashy.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Alethea Kontis

As any author will tell you, second novels are often even more challenging than first ones — they have special challenges, particularly in the production stage. Alethea Kontis is here to tell you her about her second novel experience with Hero, and it’s definitely an interesting one. The good news is: Second novels still happen!

ALETHEA KONTIS:

My Big Idea for Hero was originally called “Saturday.” (Because Enchanted was originally entitled “Sunday.”)  It was a giant, 20-chapter outline on poster board, with notes. After we sold Enchanted, I typed it up, sent it to my editor, and waited for the money trucks to arrive. All that came back was an email.

They didn’t like the idea. In fact, they didn’t like the idea so much that they saw Enchanted as a stand-alone novel, and I should really just stop trying to pitch them books for the rest of the Woodcutter sisters.

I didn’t want to stop, but why would I write a book that had no hope of being published? So I didn’t. And then Enchanted came along.

Two weeks after the launch and about four days into my fan-funded book tour, I got another email. “Hey, remember how you were going to write books about all the other sisters? You should really do that. BTW, we know you won’t be home until mid-June, but Book 2 is due in October. And we still hate the outline. Have a nice day!”

Every author wonders if they’ll be able to hack it in a trial by fire. Well, this author knows she’s got what it takes. I wrote that manuscript in three months, and when they didn’t like that, I took the fourth month to rewrite the whole thing. But I did it, against all odds, and what came out was magic.

Ironically, this is exactly what Hero is all about.

There’s a fairy tale I grew up with–a picture book by Jay Williams and Friso Henstra called Petronella. It’s a feminist retelling of the Grimms’ tale “Master Maid,” which just so happens to be one of my editor’s favorite stories.

Petronella is the daughter of King Peter and Queen Blossom, youngest of three boys. Even though she isn’t a boy she’s still raised as one, and she is expected to seek her own fortune. She finds out about a prince that’s been captured by a wizard and sets out to save him. She completes all the tasks the wizard gives her and escapes with the prince. The wizard follows. She tries to thwart him, but still he gives chase. When she finally captures him and asks why, the wizard says, “Because you’re clever and I’m in love with you.” In the end (spoiler), Petronella ditches the lazy prince and marries the wizard.

Needless to say, that not exactly how the Grimms’ story ends…but many of the elements remain the same.

Where Sunday Woodcutter was a slightly agoraphobic introvert writer who fell in love with a frog, her older sister Saturday is a tall girl with bright eyes, a magic ax, and a strong work ethic, who can’t tell a story to save her life. She’s annoyed that all of her other siblings possess fey magic, and thinks that because she doesn’t, she’ll never have an adventure of her own.

Fate, of course, proves her wrong. A blind witch mistakes her for her infamous brother Jack, kidnaps her, and traps her in an icy cave at the Top of the World. The witch’s daughter lives there too…only it’s really a man named Peregrine cursed by the real witch’s daughter into taking her place.

Yup — this is a book where the girl wears trousers and the boy wears a skirt, there’s an evil witch and a scary dragon and everyone’s a hero.

I only wish they’d put Peregrine on the cover.

—-

Hero: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt (via Google Preview). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter

The Big Idea: Ann Leckie

Ancilliary Justice, by author Ann Leckie, is getting the sort of press that debut authors dream about, from a starred review in Library Journal to this rave over at io9.com (and also, you will note from the cover picture above, a blurb from me). How did Leckie do it? By taking a sub-genre people love — space opera — and adding a new perspective to elements of it people think they already know, to make it surprising and fascinating all over again. Here she is with the details.

ANN LECKIE:

I began my SF reading career with space opera, and while I came to love all sorts of science fiction, the attraction to space opera’s set of shiny things is still a powerful one. So when I was first playing with the universe that would eventually become the Radch, it was–and in many respects still is–an assemblage of space opera tropes. Galactic empire? Check! Artificially intelligent ships? Check! Hyperspace gates! Destroyed planets! Force fields! Oooh, can I crowbar in a Dyson sphere? If it was shiny I threw it in there. I love that stuff!

Ancillaries–the human bodies slaved to Radchaai ships’ artificial intelligences–are really just a variation on an old space opera trope. I’m not cruel enough to link to TV Tropes, but if you had a few months to kill you could go look at “Meat Puppet” and its subtype “Wetware Body.”

So, I did take my toys out of the common box. But I wanted to do something different with them, even if it was only slightly different. Usually, when I’m looking at story ideas, at pieces of setting or at characters, I ask myself, “What’s the reason this interests me enough for me to sit down and spend hours and days and weeks writing about it?”

Sometimes the wetware body is played for horror, or sometimes for a (IMO overly simplistic) demonstration of the Power of Human Emotion. I wanted some of that horror, but I have qualms about the assumptions behind the Human Emotion trope and besides, it quickly became clear to me that what really interested me about my main character’s situation was the question of identity. The main character of Ancillary Justice is a ship, the troop carrier Justice of Toren. She is also one twenty-body unit of ancillary soldiers, Justice of Toren One Esk. She is also a single segment of that unit, One Esk Nineteen. And that body was someone else entirely before it was Nineteen, before it was One Esk, before it was Justice of Toren.

That’s a lot of different mes in one place, and how do you talk about that? How do you describe someone who’s body isn’t contiguous, who has more than one brain, who can be physically separated from themselves and still be themselves? How do you talk about being a person who might potentially (or actually) be several people? Or, the question that made me slightly queasy when I really started digging into it–who is anybody anyway?

Often, in my experience, the wetware body plot assumes that the “essence” of a person, who someone really is, is something that is separable from that person’s body. For instance, Captain Kirk can find himself transferred to the body of Janice Lester and he’s still Captain Kirk! *

I don’t think that’s possible. There are so many cases where a physical change to the brain causes radical differences in who someone is. Phineas Gage is really only the most notorious of those. Who you are, how you react to things, how you behave, is very much a product of not only your history and the environment surrounding you, but also of the physical state of your brain. In the end, who you are (or who you think of yourself as, because “who you are” isn’t actually a simple matter) isn’t really something like a set of files that could be transferred to another body. Unless that new body is pretty much physically identical to your previous one, you’re not going to be the same person.** (Yes, yes, Theseus’ Paradox, and who is anybody anyway, and I told you that made me queasy so let’s just pass it by, shall we?)

And if I don’t think that’s possible, if I think that who you are is very much a question of your body–your brain being very much a part of your body–how do my ancillaries work? And what is that like, to be a human body that’s part of a ship’s body? And what happens when everything but that one human body is destroyed?

These weren’t the only things I came up with, when I asked myself what about this story interested me. But it was one of the first, one of the most basic questions. Who is this person, anyway? And how can they be who they are and what must that be like?

*And she could totally have had as full a life as any woman! OMG, Star Trek, are you freaking kidding me??

**Yes, actually, while I do enjoy Upload stories, sometimes this aspect bugs me. Emotions, for instance. Emotions are very physical, very based in your body. That punched-in-the-gut feeling you get when something horrible or terrifying happens? Your adrenal glands sit right on top of your kidneys, and when you’re stressed they release a flood of hormones that mess with your blood pressure and, among other things, your gut. Yes, there’s an abstract part of the emotion–neuroscientist Antonio Damasio divides this into the physical “emotion” on the one hand, and on the other hand the “feeling,” the more specific reaction that’s more or less your personal interpretation of and response to that physical emotion. But the emotion has a physical base. Change that–design a body that’s radically different from a human body, or posit a being with no body at all–and the whole experience of emotion changes drastically.

—-

Ancillary Justice: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Adam Mansbach

The spaces between things have a name — and they have a hold on author Adam Mansbach. He’s here to explain why and how, and what it means for his newest book, the novel The Dead Run.

ADAM MANSBACH:

One of the smartest people in the publishing game is a guy named Chris Jackson. He was my editor for two books, and we had one of those mythical old-school writer/editor relationships, by which I mean that we’d have heated four-hour debates about whether I should rewrite a scene, and I’d do everything I could to convince Chris that he was wrong and the scene was brilliant and perfect it was, and then I’d get off the phone and realize he was right and go rewrite it.

One of Chris’s favorite words in those days was “liminal.” It would appear in his editorial letters to me (also quite lengthy) with alarming frequency – alarming because I didn’t really know what it meant. And for some reason, probably because I’m a cantankerous asshole, I never looked it up.

It turns out, though, that “liminal” is a fantastic word, and I use it all the time now.  Nobody older than nine has any business quoting a dictionary definition in an essay, but liminal basically means in-between, unresolved – a state or a site of possibility and ambiguity, murk and mystery.  Once I learned the word, I realized that damn near everything I’ve ever written has revolved around the liminal, that as a writer I’m instinctively drawn to the spaces and places in our culture where things haven’t settled, where exploration and confusion are most alive. Where people float in the limbo of not-knowing; where rules bend and morals take on a hue of subjectivity. It’s in these spaces that human paradox and complexity – what we’re all trying to explore in stories, regardless of the window-dressing of genre or style – are most alive and on fire, and best dramatized.

That might mean adolescence, or the unseen criminal underbelly of a city, or the complexity of a secret racial identity – all things I’ve written about in previous novels.   In The Dead Run, my first foray into SFF writing, that liminal space is a swath of desert along the Texas-Mexico border, a place that doesn’t appear on any map.  A crime committed there falls under the jurisdiction of whichever country feels like claiming it. Sometimes that’s nobody.  Especially when dead girls start turning up with their hearts torn out.

The Dead Run is set in a second liminal space, too: a kind of hazy, vertiginous pocket-universe in which the poles of right and wrong are demagnetized – where the specter of unspeakable evils seem to justify lesser ones, where ancient prophesies demand that a “righteous messenger” can only be protected by corrupt men, “flanked on all sides by evil,” where only purity can keep you alive but the right murder can be pure as driven snow.

The book’s protagonist, Jess Galvan, wouldn’t be languishing in a Mexican prison if he hadn’t refused to stand idly by while a bunch of cops took advantage of a young drunk girl. And he wouldn’t have been in that bar to begin with if he wasn’t picking up some bearer’s bonds to smuggle into the U.S. And he wouldn’t have started making border runs if he didn’t need cash to win back custody of his daughter from his crazy, cult-member ex-wife.

And if he wasn’t in jail, he wouldn’t have been summoned into the warren of tunnels beneath the prison by El Cucuy, a five-hundred-year-old Aztec priest who needs a moral man to carry the “sacred vessel of the gods” – the still-beating heart of virgin – across the border and deliver it to his son, thus transferring the ancient, stolen powers of a banished god into a new body. That would be a lot easier if the desert wasn’t full of undead girls – the mythical Virgin Army, each one killed by Cucuy, each heart placed into the hands of a man who failed to complete the task now set before Galvan – who sense the presence of the heart and judge its bearer’s righteousness.

Shit gets complicated in the liminal zone.

—-

The Dead Run: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Steven Brust and Skyler White

 

Disclosure: I liked The Incrementalists, the new novel by Steven Brust and Skyler White, enough to blurb it (specifically, the blurb says “Secret societies, immortality, murder mysteries and Las Vegas all in one book? Shut up and take my money.”); it also received a coveted starred review from Booklist, which said “Call it genius at work.” Not bad praise. Here are the aforementioned geniuses, Brust and White, to give you a little long-term perspective on their latest.

STEVEN BRUST & SKYLER WHITE:

If you’re a middle-class American with a conscience, it is easy to look around and say, “No one cares.” It certainly can seem that way. It might seem like you and your immediate circle of real-life and internet friends are the only ones who notice there’s a problem. The very idea of alleviating systematic oppression–much less solving it–might appear to you like a pipe dream. Perhaps you find yourself cursing the greater portion of humanity, calling them stupid, decrying their apathy.

But try taking the long view: Over the course of human history in general, and US history in particular, the trend has been for more equality, more justice. We have built up productive forces to the point where there is no need for anyone to be hungry, or homeless, or without health care. Democracy and equality–though frighteningly threatened–are broadly considered natural rights. As a species, we are still in our infancy, yet we’ve made amazing progress. Progress is a thing. It can be very hard, and certainly there is backward movement at times. But there is no good reason to believe progress will stop.

And we’ve progressed by working together. Yeah, sometimes we screw things up. Sometimes, as we look at history, we wish we’d done better. Sometimes we wish there was someone trustworthy with a long enough view to tell us what “better” even means.

And maybe even someone who could do something about it.

The Incrementalists, a secret society of around 200 people has, since the beginning of human history, been working to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this stretches across nations, races, and time, but they’ve been messing (“meddling”) with people’s heads just as long. Able to draw from a collective experience of over forty thousand years, and skilled in triggering precise emotions in others, they pick pivotal moments to subtly nudge people to maybe do the right thing, or maybe refrain from doing quite as much of the wrong thing.

So, if they were real (and, you know, you can’t prove they aren’t), how are they doing so far? You could say they’re doing pretty well, given all the catastrophes our species has avoided, how much progress we’ve made, and how many terrible things might have been even worse. Or you could say they are utterly ineffective, given how screwed up so many things are. They key word in all of that is: You.

You get to decide. That’s the point, and that’s one of the things that made this project so much fun, because the big idea behind The Incrementalists is a question. It’s the “what if” question that got us writing, but it is also, if we’ve done our job well, a question we’ve seeded in the minds of the readers. Just how do you fit into all of this? How do you choose to engage with the book, with the imaginary world in which it takes place, with the real world that the imaginary world is drawn from?

The Incrementalists often gets singled out as a collaborative project because there are two authors; but every book is a collaborative project. Just as the characters in The Incrementalists cooperate despite annoyances and conflicts, and just as its authors cooperated despite occasionally differing visions and expectations, this book—every book—asks readers to cooperate in the story-telling process. Writers need readers to shape the worlds they sketch, see the characters they imagine, hear what they’ve written and intuit what they’ve suggested.

As has been said many times before by many people, there is no reason to expect what the reader sees to be what we see; indeed, there is no reason to expect what Skyler sees to be what Steve sees. They don’t have to be the same; they can’t be the same. What matters is that they can dance together. The writers, the editors, the art director and everyone in production, the voice actors for the audio book, the readers, and even the reviewers are part of the process that makes a book what it is.

But it goes well beyond fiction. Collaboration, cooperation to make things better, is at the heart of what we human monkeys do. At the end of this book we, as one interviewer put it, “rap on the fourth wall.” And we do that in several other subtler places as well to make the same point – that this story is a metaphor for stories, and that how you want to engage with the book, with the ideas behind it, with the overall concept, and with the characters, is up to you. And that however you engage with it, you’ll be collaborating with us. We’ll be here, on other side, listening in case anyone knocks back.

—-

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

Read an excerpt. Visit Steven Brust’s site. Follow him on Twitter. Visit Skyler White’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Brandon Sanderson

Don’t know if you’ve heard of this Brandon Sanderson kid, but something tells me one day he’s gonna hit the heights. He’s got a new book out called Steelheart, and he’s here today to talk about. And also to talk about being a geek. And how the latter matters to the former.

Watch for this guy! He’s gonna be big!

BRANDON SANDERSON:

Introduction
Early in my life, I knew I was a geek. I just didn’t know what that meant.

For example, I went to a Star Trek convention when I was eleven or twelve. Now, at that point, I’d only seen a handful of TOS episodes. I hadn’t discovered fantasy novels or reading yet. But I went to a Star Trek convention because…well, I was geek, right? That seemed like the sort of thing that geeks did.

Fortunately, it turns out my instincts about myself were right. During the next few years, I blossomed. In geek terms, that means I discovered comic books, role playing, and novels–then retreated to my room to pupate for the next six years, surviving on a steady diet of Anne McCaffrey novels and bags of Cheetos.

STEELHEART
A few years ago, I got an idea. It was a great idea. A really, REALLY great idea.

This isn’t to say it will feel as awesome to you as it did to me. A “great” idea for me is a very individual thing. They aren’t always the ones that come with an accessible, built-in pitch–instead, they are the ideas that boil in my head and turn into a book that I can’t leave alone.

Many writers say that ideas are cheap, and I find this to be mostly true. A writer grows accustomed to coming up with–and discarding–ideas on a daily basis. This idea, however, was one of those powerful ones, precisely because of its undiscardability.

The idea was actually pretty simple. It came as I was driving to a book signing, and was cut off in traffic. I had an immediate, gut response: I thought to the person ahead of me, “You are lucky I don’t have super powers, or I’d totally blow your car up right now.”

This terrified me in ways I can’t explain. It whispered that, if I were to somehow have powers like this, I might not be quite so benevolent with them as heroes from the stories. This spiraled me into wondering what would happen if people started gaining powers, but everyone used them selfishly.

Finally, the idea that made me eager came–it was the idea for a group of regular people who assassinate super-powered individuals. Again, it’s not the pitch, but the entire package that made me excited. Steelheart was a book I was truly, passionately excited to write, and after finishing some thirty books, I’ve learned to trust my instincts. An idea that makes me excited in new ways and captures my imagination is something to grab hold of tightly.

In this case, the idea dredged up passions from my childhood and mixed them with plotting structures I’d been studying in recent films. It prompted a character voice in my head who was individual and distinct.

I had a several hour drive ahead of me. By the end of it, I had Steelheart–almost in its entirety–pictured and held in my mind.

Something about writing the book the way I’d imagined it bothered me, though. And it had to do with my experiences with anthropomorphic turtles.

Geek Culture
In my high school years, we had a gift exchange in my French class. In an interesting parallel to my Star Trek convention experience, the girl who drew my name bought me a comic book. (The one where Superman dies, not first printing, unfortunately.) I’d never mentioned comic books in class, and so far as I knew, this girl and I had never had a conversation. She knew to get me a comic book anyway because…well, I was one of THOSE people.

As a geek in my high school, there were just certain things that you did. You played with computers and video games. You read comic books. You hid in basements and role played. Amusingly, I wasn’t cool enough to be on the school newspaper–which was not actually the domain of the geek, but instead the preppy debate folks.

The previous paragraph might make it sound like I was ostracized, but I didn’t really feel that way. I was quite comfortable in this role–as, I assume, was common for geeks in the ’80s and early ’90s. This was our home. We adopted it, claimed it, and loved it.

We also defended it. As I did constantly in regards to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Now, you have to understand, TMNT was MY comic book. I’d started role playing because of TMNT, and its issues were the first comics I ever read. I discovered the Turtles before I even found fantasy novels, and I continued to role play TMNT games for years into my teens.

And I had a problem with the cartoon show and movies that came after it. Both were actually a lot of fun–except for the way that this new wave of Turtles took MY comic and repackaged it for a more general audience.

I think a lot of us in geek culture have felt this kind of emotion, particularly in recent years. A great deal has been written about geek culture going mainstream.

I’m not going to defend my selfishness in wanting to keep the Turtles for myself. It was an instinctive, emotional reaction from a teenage boy who saw part of what defined him–part of what society had used to define him–being stolen and made (in his eyes) more shallow.

Over the years, though, I had to confront these emotions. What was it that bothered me so much? A thing which brought me joy was now bringing joy to many others. Why had my first instinct been selfishness, as opposed to pleasure? Isn’t the core of geekdom about expertise? Suddenly, I was an expert about something that everyone else was discovering. Why, instead of being happy, had I been so dismissive, even angry?

Steelheart and the Big Idea
Now, I don’t want to belabor the parallel between myself as a teen and my later self and his desire to destroy inconsiderate drivers. I do want to mention the Big Idea here, though. It’s not the idea I had for my book–I’ve talked about how personal that particular idea was.

The Big Idea for me on this book has to do with the importance, for myself, of embracing the larger world as it discovers stories I’ve loved. Yes, maybe those stories will change as they are brought to new mediums. That’s okay.

I feel I spent my youthful geekhood shaking chains and trying to get people to take my passions seriously. Now that many do, I want to celebrate it. I’m sure many of you have made this same transition, or never felt these same emotions in the first place. But this book brought the idea into focus for me.

As a writer, the further I’ve progressed in my career, the more “epic fantasy” I’ve become. Thicker books, more intricate worldbuilding, more sub-plots and hidden allusions relating my books to one another. I do this because that’s what I find exciting about epic fantasy.

Steelheart, as I’d imagined it, was far more accessible. I imagined it like a mainstream movie–one deeply influenced by the comics and stories of my youth, but paced and plotted like modern action films. The book is a fun explosion of a story–set pieces, chase scenes, and super heroes mixed with my own individual blend of worldbuilding.

I spent an undue amount of time wondering, as I worked on the book, if I was doing the very thing I’d worried about in my youth. Was I taking something individual to geek culture and distilling it to a more streamlined package, presenting it for the general masses?

Yes, I was.

And I love that about it.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: V.E. Schwab

In explaining the Big Idea behind her latest novel Vicious, V.E. Schwab notes that the elements (and even characters) that you think are important when you begin the novel are not always the elements that are important when you finish the novel — the writing of the novel itself reveals what’s interesting about the world you’re building.

V.E. SCHWAB:

Vicious started as a lifeboat book.

I’d been riding the publishing waves for a couple of years. My first novel was still months out from hitting shelves, I was working on my second, and I was already having trouble adjusting to the transparency that came with writing under contract. I felt exposed. Instead of working in a dark, comfy shell, I was working in a bubble, intensely aware of my editor’s looming form and impending judgment. And at some point, pinned between deadlines and watching eyes, I remember making a decision.

I was going to write a new book. And I wasn’t going to tell anybody.

It felt so…devious.

And I couldn’t wait to start.

The question was, where to start? If I could turn off the business side of my brain, recently so loud and intrusive with words like sellable and marketable and audience so that the only voice in my head was my own, what would I write?

Superpowers.

Not superheroes, mind you. Not the classic kind from the Golden Age of comics, paragons of self-sacrifice and justice battling their evil counterparts. I’d recently absorbed the Watchmen graphic novel, and was completely taken by the realness of those characters. They weren’t self-identified heroes. They were people. Damaged people. Self-interested, maladjusted, strange, and complicated people. Stories like Watchmen reinforced an idea that I had already pondered and wanted to explore further: real people don’t automatically become superheroes. They just become the same flawed people with superpowers on top. It changed them, yes, but didn’t automatically make them better. If anything, I thought, it would probably make them worse. And as someone who has always liked her people painted in shades of gray, I loved that conceit. I went with it.

This isn’t the part where I say that Vicious spilled out, fully realized and everything I wanted it to be. It didn’t. It wasn’t some brief, passionate affair. A fiction fling. Hell, Vicious wasn’t even Vicious. It started out as the story of a man named Alt. Now, Alt’s not even in Vicious, but I wouldn’t have Vicious without him.

Alt shows up in a city called Merit (which is in the book). He has the ability to see  people’s future in reflective surfaces (it’s kind of killing his love life) and he’s only in Merit for a couple days when two groups try to recruit him. One group called themselves the heroes, and the other group, the villains. The heroes had a sense of purpose, or at least delusion, but the villains only took that name because they were against the heroes. And I was utterly fascinated by the idea that these terms—hero and villain—were meaningless to them, that it wasn’t really a matter of good and evil at all, merely opposition. The villains weren’t against society. Nor would they even consider themselves evil. The members of the villain gang were there only because they had vendettas against the members of the hero gang. It was personal.

The leader of the “heroes” was a man named Eli. The leader of the “villains” was a man named Victor. I started to write a flashback with the two of them as college students, more as an exercise in backstory than anything else. But something happened. Within a few pages, Victor and Eli became immeasurably more interesting than Alt. Theirs was a story of two brilliant, damaged boys and a dangerous idea. A theory turned experiment with disastrous results. A world filled with jealousy, and murder, science and power and revenge. A world without heroes.

The title came the day I opened a fresh document and started to tell their story.

VICIOUS.

Victor and Eli took over everything. They were smart, and cunning, and deranged. They were deeply flawed, and their superpowers, instead of making them better, made them worse.

And they were so damn fun to write.

They never behaved like heroes (whether that automatically makes them villains, you’ll have to decide for yourself), but from the beginning, they both had rules. Victor had cold, hard logic and a level of detachment that allowed him to assess everything rationally, while Eli had a massively distorted moral compass, a sense of God-given purpose. These personal forces guided them as much as any ability (and it’s not about their abilities, really; it’s about what the abilities—the search, the attainment, the aftermath—bring out in them).

Of course, it’s not just their story. The world of Vicious is populated by a variety of other EOs—ExtraOrdinary people—the most important of which is a pair of sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the same fight. You might argue that thirteen-year-old Sydney is the only real hero in the book (I would argue there are no heroes in this book).

I spent more than two years building the world of Vicious, writing it down in order—from Victor and Eli’s first interaction sophomore year, through the experiments that changed everything, to their final confrontation in a half-built Merit high-rise ten years later—and then breaking it apart and putting back together in a different shape. By the time you hit the end, you’ll have all the pieces. By the time I hit the end, I wasn’t ready to let go.

My Tor editor and I joke that Victor is my sociopathic supervillain alter ego—we certainly have a similar wardrobe, and we  would both rather observe and assess than engage—but honestly, he probably has more of me in him than I’d like to admit. So does Eli, for that matter. They all do. The cast of Vicious is my best and worst, all the strange and sick (and sickly funny) little quirks, and I love every one of them.

I hope you will, too.

(I eventually told someone else about the book.)

—-

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

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

Lauren Beukes Presents The Spark

A couple of months ago, Lauren Beukes, author of several fantastic books and recent winner of the Clarke Award, contacted me about wanting to do something similar to The Big Idea for her home country of South Africa. I told her I thought this was a great idea and encouraged her to do it, albeit with a different name so there would be no confusion.

Lauren’s followed through on the idea, and now on her Web site presents The Spark, focused on new books from South African authors, who are talking about those books in their own words. The first book featured is Alex Latimer’s Space Race. Others, hopefully, will follow soon. Congratulations to Lauren for getting this off the ground. I look forward to more Sparks.

For the record, I very happily encourage authors and bloggers to take the “Big Idea” concept and adapt it for their local markets and/or fields and/or languages — I started doing it because I wanted to help promote new books and authors. So the more people doing that, in more places and languages and topics of interest than I could ever cover, the better. I do recommend calling the feature something other than “The Big Idea” if only to differentiate between each of us, but the actual idea itself? Take it. Use it. Promote authors and their works. It’s a good thing to do, for the writers and the readers.

The Big Idea: Alexandra Coutts

It’s the end of the world as we know it. How do you feel? This is the question Alexandra Coutts has to confront in her novel Tumble & Fall. Getting to the right answer for her book was more difficult than you might expect.

ALEXANDRA COUTTS:

Finding the Big Idea behind Tumble & Fall was, in many ways, the experience of fighting the “Big Idea,” tooth and nail. I had decided to write a book about “the end of the world,” so, clearly, I was starting from a pretty high-concept place. But beyond that, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to shrink it all down—the characters and how they spend their final earthly days—as much as possible.

It would have been easy to jump to that “big” place right away. An asteroid is heading straight for earth. Three teenagers risk everything to save the world as we know it—for example.

Instead, I spent a great deal of time thinking about what the end of the world would actually look and feel like, particularly in the days leading up to an asteroid strike. As a member of the general, mostly-asteroid-science-ignorant public (as opposed to the daughter of an astronaut, or some such…) what would we know about what to expect, if the end of days were truly near? Would there be any hope for survival?

I started by checking in with the Internet. (In the absence of an astronaut parent, wouldn’t the Internet be the first place we’d turn?) I learned that if our planet were to collide with an asteroid big enough to do severe and lasting damage, chances are that the point of impact would land in the ocean. The force of impact would send massive tsunamis rippling out in all directions, quickly followed by a giant cloud of fire and ash and debris. Anything (or anyone) not destroyed by the initial waves of water or dislodged chunks of flaming earth, would be deprived of sunlight in the dusty aftermath, indefinitely.

As far as surviving goes, it wasn’t looking good.

Next, I started asking questions: What would these scenarios, these conjectures, these odds, do to the way we lived our final days?  How would we start to think differently about the natural world? What it would feel like to be outside, at night, under a star-studded sky? How terrifying would it suddenly feel to be near the ocean, when we knew that it could so quickly turn against us?

I also wanted to think about how our relationships would change with each other. Since I was writing a book for Young Adults, I knew early on that one big tension would be the pull of family vs. the desire to spend time with friends. This is one of my strongest memories of adolescence: negotiating the family/friend balance. How much more intense would that social tug feel if there were only a limited number of family dinners left? If every party with friends you were invited to could be the very last? It may seem trivial, in the face of total destruction, but as a teenager, when everything feels like “the end of the world” to some degree, each moment you spend away from the person you want to be spending it with can feel apocalyptic.

I thought a lot about death, and the afterlife. Most of us, by the time we are sixteen or seventeen, have already lost somebody we love. How would we feel about those people, those losses, if we knew that, in very short order, life could be over for the rest of us, too? No matter our religious beliefs, I imagined we would feel closer to our dead, and perhaps even hopeful that we might see them again. Hopeful that the end would also be a beginning, physically, or spiritually, or, at the very least, emotionally, as we made our peace with those left around us.

And that’s where my Big Idea caught up with me, in the end. Hope. A book about the end of the world without hope would be just as insufferable to read as it would have been for me to write. I knew my characters weren’t going to be shooting off into space to deflect an asteroid, sacrificing themselves to science in exchange for the promise of a better tomorrow. But I also knew I wanted them to never give up hope. I wanted them to never stop believing that what they did in their final hours mattered, on some scale, big or small. Even if it was just a family dinner, or a party on the beach with their friends. Each of my characters would choose to live while they still had the chance.

It’s what I would do. I hope.

—-

Tumble & Fall: Amazon|Barnes &Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Visit the book page, where you can find an excerpt and tour information. Visit the author’s website and follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Jaime Lee Moyer

In Delia’s Shadow, the main character is haunted by a ghost. In writing the book, author Jaime Lee Moyer was haunted by an idea. How do the two hauntings relate? Moyer is here to tell you.

JAIME LEE MOYER:

Most writers are magpies. We collect shiny ideas, obsessions, and images that we can’t let go of or forget. Many of us dream stories as well, most of them offshoots of all the things we’ve crammed into our brains.

Delia’s Shadow was a magpie novel that began as a dream fragment. This book is made up of so many ideas and pieces of knowledge I’ve acquired,  experiences and obsessions I’ve had over the years. I drew on my love of history, ghosts and unexplained phenomena, an image I couldn’t forget, and an obsession with understanding how little boys—normal little boys—grow up to become serial killers. The scariest monsters of all are the human kind.

This book started in a dream about a young woman dressed in old-fashioned clothing and standing next to a railroad track. A satchel sat at her feet and steam from the locomotive billowed around her, swirling and writhing in a very creepy way. Delia was looking over her shoulder, watching for the person following her.

I couldn’t get this image out of my head or stop thinking about who was following Delia, and why. Well, it turned out that the person following her was a ghost. Why this particular ghost decided to haunt Delia turned out to be very important. Once I knew why, the whole book fell into my head.

Delia has always seen ghosts, but only as glimpses of faces watching from a corner, or faded haunts walking through walls. The ghost she discovers standing at the foot of her bed one morning is different. Shadow, as she comes to call this spirit, follows her relentlessly, invades her dreams, and demands things of Delia. This young woman died before Delia was born, the last victim of a brutal killer that terrorized San Francisco and then vanished. Delia finds herself compelled to discover what Shadow wants from her and lay the ghost to rest. This was the first idea.

The second idea is woven in with the first. In 1885 a serial killer used the city of San Francisco as his private hunting grounds, picking and choosing his victims at random. This killer tormented the lead detective and the newspapers with a series of letters that detailed his victims’ suffering, and describing victims never found. The murders stopped as suddenly as they began and the killer was never caught.

Thirty years later, in 1915, the killer is back. Lieutenant Gabe Ryan finds himself investigating a series of murders that bear an uncanny resemblance to his father’s old cases. The killer threatens to begin hunting victims at the Panama Pacific Exposition unless Gabe prints his letters in the paper.

The minor–or not so minor—third idea was a series of questions I asked myself: How do people turn into monsters?  Where did this man go for thirty years and why is he back? How could a police detective without modern forensics catch this man?

Once upon a time there was a real serial killer hunting in San Francisco, picking and choosing his victims at will, spreading fear and the uncertainty that anyone was safe. This man stopped killing suddenly and vanished. He was never caught, his identity never discovered.  One question I couldn’t stop asking myself was—what if he came back again and again and again?  I had a lot of real life inspiration to draw on, but I had to come up with answers to all those questions. Answers that made sense.

Choosing the time period was easy, as was deciding that five of the main characters were women; six if you count the ghost. 1915 really was at the beginning of what we think of as the modern age. Cars were becoming as common as horse drawn buggies and wagons. Women had already won the vote in California years before and were proud of their independence. Women’s roles were changing, attitudes were changing, and the flapper era was just around the corner.

Not everything was rosy and sunny in 1915, nor all the shifts positive. The Great War was being fought in Europe, ushering in drastic changes and casting a pall on the future. Before the war ended almost an entire generation of young men would be lost. Focusing on nothing but the darkness surrounding Gabe and Delia, Sadie and Jack, and Dora, would be an easy trap to fall into.

I didn’t want to do that, not to the characters and not to readers, and not to me. Friendship and love, trust and a great deal of hope are woven into this story, and a belief in better days. Hope and friendship will get you through the darkest times, and enable you to get up again when you’ve been knocked down.

That might be the biggest idea of all.

—-

Delia’s Shadow: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is known as a very serious writer, as his Hugo, Nebula and Prinz Award-winnning books will testify to. So what’s up with a goofy middle-grade book called Zombie Baseball Beatdown? As Paolo explains, sometimes when everyone else wants you to zig, you just have to zag — and in doing so, recenter yourself as a writer.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI:

Typically, I’m perceived as a serious writer, i.e. I write about serious things like climate change and GMOs, child soldiering and energy scarcity, and I write about those topics in serious ways. I’ve also gained a lot of success and recognition for doing this kind of writing, so it’s not a huge surprise that the response to my completely serious announcement that my new novel is called Zombie Baseball Beatdown is often:

“Seriously? WTF?”

Sometimes it’s an even stronger reaction: “Sellout” shows up quite a bit.

But my personal favorite response came when I announced Zombie Baseball Beatdown on Facebook, saying, “See? I can write an upbeat apocalypse!”

One commenter replied, “Please don’t.”

Ouch.

Of course, I’d been warned this would happen. When I told my agent this would be my next novel, she said, in a somewhat exasperated tone, “You know, Paolo, it’s generally considered to be a good career move to follow up a success with something that’s similar.”

So why would I want to confuse loyal readers by writing a kid’s book with a severed zombie head flying off the cover?

To be honest, I didn’t write Zombie Baseball Beatdown just for the giggle (though I fully admit, it was a giggle to write. Hell, I just like saying the title over and over again. It makes me laugh every time). I actually did it because it if I didn’t, I probably wasn’t going to write another one of my “serious” novels ever again.

People really do want you to give them something like what they loved before. Unfortunately, when you’re  new writer, you’re also expected to do that while everyone is watching.

When I started working on my follow-up to Ship Breaker—a novel called The Drowned Cities—I felt a lot of eyes on me. Editors, agents, fans, critics—they were all leaning over my shoulder as I typed. They’d mutter amongst themselves, nodding or shaking their heads, wincing at my character choices, taunting me for my prose clichés…. The resulting novel, written under the oversight of this imaginary committee, was terrible. I ended up throwing it all away and starting over.

And then I started over again. And again. And again.

While I was fighting my way through The Drowned Cities, my wife, who is a school teacher, was  engaged in an uphill battle of her own: trying to win over her most reluctant students to the idea that reading was actually cool.

One day, in a fit of frustration she asked one of them, “Well, what would you like to read about?”

“Zombies,” came the testy reply.

She described this encounter to me when she came home from work, and we laughed about it. But for some reason the plaintive desire expressed by that fifth-grade boy really struck me.

If my nine-year-old son is enamored with an iPod game like “Earn to Die” where players trick out bigger and bigger vehicles in order to drive over zombies and turn them into bloody road kill, books really do have to step up their game. It seems that we in the writing establishment are so busy making our “serious” literature serious, that we’re leaving our kids bored and restless. And as a result, we’re sending the message that video games are awesome, and books are boring crap.

Right then, I decided I wanted to write a zombie book.

Now, as much as I like promoting literacy, my sudden obsession with zombie-bashing wasn’t entirely altruistic. The thing that really appealed to me about writing a zombie book for kids was that it would give me a chance to work on a secret project.

For the last two years, I’d been miserable trying to write The Drowned Cities with that Greek chorus of critical voices in my head. I desperately wanted to play creatively in a space where I no longer had to worry about who liked what, or who approved of what, or whether anyone would want to buy what I wrote.

I just wanted to create, instead of spending all my time looking over my shoulder.

For me, Zombie Baseball Beatdown was a chance to play. By writing a story that no one wanted – not my editor, not my agent, not my readers, not my critics– I reclaimed creative space. Once again, it was just me. Just me, writing about three kids on a baseball team who defend their small town from the zombie apocalypse. And instead of having many different voices that I needed to satisfy, I only had one—that boy in my wife’s class who didn’t think reading was fun.

Ultimately, it turns out that whether I’m writing novels for adults or for middle school zombie enthusiasts, my themes and agendas still sneak into my stories. It was probably inevitable that my zombie apocalypse would come oozing out of the local meatpacking plant, with its overuse of antibiotics and strange feed supplements and questionable government oversight. And of course, once you’re writing about industrial meat, you can’t help but write about the workers who are often exploited by the meatpacking industry. One thing leads to another, and before you know it, a story about bashing zombies with baseball bats becomes a story about food safety and corporate greed, immigration policy and race in America.

Apparently even if I sneak off to write about crazed zombie cows, my stories still end up smeared with all the fingerprints of my “serious” writing. Wherever you go, there you are, as they say.

I loved writing this book, and I hope kids will love reading it, too. But more than that, I love what writing this book did for me, creatively. Writing Zombie Baseball Beatdown loosened all my writing knots, and silenced all the critics in my head.

Right after I finished the first draft of Zombie Baseball Beatdown, I returned to The Drowned Cities and finished writing that as well. And from there, I went on to write my next novel for adults, The Water Knife.

I know this book will feel like a hopeless detour to some people, and I totally get that. I too, have preferences about which stories I wish a certain author would write.

But sometimes, the thing that looks like a writer driving into a creative ditch isn’t a ditch at all; it’s actually a short cut—the most direct route to all the other stories that an author is going to write. So if my characters Rabi and Miguel and Joe happen to steal a 4×4 pickup and drive it straight into a zombie horde, well then, you should know that it was also me, driving over a few obstacles of my own.

I hope your kids enjoy the ride.

—-

Zombie Baseball Beatdown: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s site, which includes an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

—-

Channel Zilch: Amazon Barnes &  Noble | Smashwords 

Visit the book page. Visit the author bio page. Follow him on Twitter.

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!

—-

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.

—-

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!

—-

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?

—-

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

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

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.

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

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