Category Archives: Big Idea

The Big Idea: Ryk E. Spoor

In his Big Idea piece for Portal, a series-ending novel that he’s written with Eric Flint, Ryk E. Spoor delves into two things critical to today’s modern science fiction writers: The secret to writing hard SF, and the secret to bringing a hard SF series to a realistic but (hopefully) satisfying close. Curious? You should be.


Back in 2004, I’d just published my second book with Baen – the short novel Diamonds Are Forever, as the first third of the Mountain Magic collection. This had been written based on an idea sketched out by Eric Flint, and the two of us had both been pleased by the way that turned out. I now had no books under contract and, while Digital Knight hadn’t done terribly badly, Jim Baen wasn’t quite ready to give the go-ahead to another solo work by me.

So Eric mentioned that there was this idea he’d had, and tried to write twice, about a weird fossil being discovered on the K-T boundary that also turned out to have a connection to an alien structure found by space probes (his original plan, as I recall, had it be on Ceres). He’d never gotten very far, because he felt it needed something that would give it the “hard edge” of real SF in some manner that was also accessible… and he thought that the kind of stuff I liked to do with characters like Jason Wood and Clint Slade was exactly what he was looking for.

For me, this was kinda scary. HARD science fiction wasn’t an area I’d contemplated getting into. Oh, it wasn’t entirely out of my feasible zone (like Eric’s big moneymaker, alternate history, which I wouldn’t touch with a forty-foot adamantium pole) but my preference lies definitely in the Space Opera and Fantasy realms. And Eric wanted real hard SF – near-future, using extrapolations of real technology, with parts of it solid enough to ring like steel when someone hammered on them.

Despite my nervousness over this, I realized this was a big opportunity, so I took a deep breath and said “Sure, sounds great!”

The result was Boundary. Published in 2006, Boundary followed a varied cast of characters including paleontologist Helen Sutter, engineer Joe Buckley, sensor genius A.J. Baker, and superspy Madeline Fathom in a pure-science adventure that started in a dusty desert fossil dig and ended in an alien base on Mars. In some ways this was one of the hardest pieces of work I’d ever had to do, because I had to study up on a lot of technology and science that I’d only known peripherally – NERVA rockets, spaceship design considerations, Martian landscape and characteristics, and others – and then figure out two crucial things:

1)  How to present all the necessary, hard-science details to the reader without boring the living hell out of said reader, and

2)  When to STOP.

That second bit is a crucial, and very scary, part of writing hard SF. You cannot get it all exactly right, not without writing textbooks on each and every subject, and you don’t have hundreds of pages to make your technical points. If you’re lucky, you have two paragraphs to make the point before the reader’s attention begins to wander down the page, looking for the next thing that isn’t an infodump. And even if you think you can get away with a few paragraphs on everything, to learn everything you might need well enough to write authoritatively on it… well, it’ll take you a lot longer than your contractual deadline allows you.

At the same time, you have to get enough right that the reader’s willing to either trust you, or overlook your flaws later on. A feeling of versimilitude has to pervade a hard-SF work. One of the tricks to do this, of course, is make sure that something you as an author do know something about is brought to the foreground frequently, so anyone who reads it will say “hey, this guy knows his stuff”. For me, that was various sensor technologies, and A.J. Baker was my go-to guy to provide commentary – and realistic technology with gee-gosh-wow capabilities – that helped provide a foundation to build on.

But there were – and still are – areas in which I had to decide that I would ignore details of reality for the sake of dramatics; for instance, many space-travel times are based on idealized distances and circumstances in many cases. Even there, though, you’ve got to be careful; disregard the wrong aspect of reality, or do it too cavalierly, and you’ve lost all the solidity and trust you might have had.

Boundary sold quite well, so I guess Eric and I didn’t do too badly on that score. So Baen contracted for two sequels. With various delays, it wasn’t until 2010 that the second book, Threshold, was released. Threshold took our heroes from Mars to Ceres and eventually to the Jupiter system, in ships both new and very, very old indeed. Threshold also contained the only real interpersonal violence and combat in the entire trilogy, mostly caused by the actions of one particular individual.

The original plan for the series had been for the adventures of our crew to arrive at Saturn’s moon Enceladus for a final great discovery and wrap-up; but the ending of Threshold marooned them on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and we came to two realizations: first, getting them off that moon and home was going to take most, if not all, of the third book. And second – these guys are starting to get kinda old to be traipsing around the solar system. Over thirteen years elapses between the opening of Boundary and the ending of Threshold. The youngest member of the main cast, Jackie Secord (a teenager at the beginning of Boundary), is over 30, with former boy genius A. J. Baker just about reaching his forties and his wife Helen well over 50. While I assumed that their future had improved medical care and lifespan, that’s still pushing it for people heading into the most dangerous and remote areas of space.

So now – May 7th – the third and final adventure of the Boundary trilogy, Portal, will be released, and I think it is the best of the three, because it draws on everything I’ve learned in the ten years since I was first published and gives our heroes what I think is their grandest, purest adventure of all – finding a way to not only survive disaster, but find a way to return home on their own, despite all odds… and with one last, wonderful discovery for all mankind.

The realization I had to finish their adventures was, itself, a bit daunting. Yet in a hard SF universe, your heroes can’t really be immortal, can’t be dashing hither and yon throughout the cosmos without a care for the fact that reflexes dull, bodies age, dangers suffered take their toll. Even cosmic chew-toy Joe Buckley has to get cut a break in the end; the latter is, of course, a running joke at Baen, in which characters named “Joe Buckley” suffer various amusing demises at the hands of multiple authors. Eric and I had decided that we would not, in fact, kill Joe – just make it look like we were going to kill him off.

As of this writing, off the top of my head, Joe has survived three spaceship crashes, a fall off the top of an arroyo, a spacesuit puncture, being marooned below Europa’s ice, and shot with a spaceship’s main cannon (which was intended for shooting large vessels or stationary bases). Of course, he hasn’t been alone on all of these, and the entire main cast has gone through various deadly situations.

Despite all the dangers, though, Eric and I painted a positive world, and one I liked visiting; here the excesses of the past couple of decades had been finally moderated, the world had not fallen into some kind of dystopia, the USA had been joined by multiple other countries as true superpowers, and the new space race was helping to fuel a new technological renaissance with the help of the clues left by the alien “Bemmies” in their deserted bases. Medical science was advancing, international cooperation was working, and people were basically living their lives as well as could be expected.

I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to write these stories with Eric’s help. He did a lot of handholding – and writing, and rewriting – in the early days. As time’s gone on, he’s given me more and more leeway in writing them, to the point that Portal’s mostly my work from end to end… but based on an idea that Eric had, and infused to a great extent with his viewpoints and always, always guided by his advice on how to handle various aspects of the story.

I’m a bit sorry to say goodbye to most of these characters; I’ve spent a lot of time with them over the last eight years, and most of them are good people. Some I knew from the beginning, and saw where they were going – Helen Sutter and A.J. Baker’s relationship was clear to me pretty much as soon as I had them meet, for instance – while others decided they were going to surprise me. Dr. Nicholas Glendale was supposed to be a very minor character, appearing in a couple of scenes and then disappearing. Instead, he insisted on staying around, and became a strong secondary character in all three books. General Alberich Hohenheim was originally slated for death… but not only Eric and I, but a number of the beta-readers as well, felt that he deserved better than an unseen, unsung death on that floating tomb, so he gets a chance at survival and redemption. Larry Conley was supposed to just be a Tuckerization and handwave – and instead he ended up being a continuing character who plays significant parts in Threshold and Portal.

Madeline Fathom was originally meant to be an antagonist, colder and deadlier, but Eric wisely remodeled her and she instead became the rock on which most of the characters could lean… while she leaned on quiet, patient Joe Buckley when she had a rare moment of doubt. I hadn’t seen that one coming at first, but once it started the relationship became obvious in hindsight.

All things do come to an end eventually, though, and in this case I had to work hard to bring that end to a conclusion that I really felt good about. In a hard-science context, I had a huge challenge in arranging the events of the last major sequences – anyone who reads it will see the really tough part probably right away. The principles of everything that happens from the time that our heroes descend into Europa until the time they leave are correct, but how well the details of certain events would really hold up… I don’t know. Heck, I don’t have the scientific background or the computer resources to even set about trying to model a lot of it.

But dramatically they work, and for the sake of a story… probability has to just take a bow and get out of the way. In my works, the heroes triumph over their odds, and they get to come home, and come home they all do in the end, with the few bad guys having gotten their just deserts and the heroics recognized and rewarded.

You’ll note that I said I’m sorry to say goodbye to the characters, but not to the universe. That’s very deliberate. For while the adventures of one set of people may be over, as long as there are people, there will be others picking up that torch and carrying it, outwards to wherever humanity travels, to the edge of possibility… and perhaps beyond. As Helen says at the end of Portal: “To the end… of the beginning.”

The universe of Boundary is not over, and you will see it again… in a different light, through different eyes, but, perhaps, not all that different, after all, when the universe challenges ordinary people to do their best … and they become extraordinary.

And all of it started when Dr. Helen Sutter looked at a single little fossil…


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

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


The Big Idea: Christian Schoon

Humans are very concerned about how we treat each other. We’re somewhat less concerned (in general) in how we treat animals of other species. What will this mean when we meet animals, not only of other species, but from other planets? At what remove will we put them to us then? It’s an interesting thought, one that Christian Schoon delves into with his new novel Zenn Scarlett.


Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: smart, thoughtful, logic-driven person, and one of my all-time favorite authors and “Creationism? Surely you jest…” go-to-guys. A few years ago, another smart person, animal rights activist and author Peter Singer, asked why Dawkins, logical-yet-carnivore, thought it was ethical to eat meat. Dawkins’ reply:

“What I am doing is going along with the fact that I live in a society where meat eating is accepted as the norm, and it requires a level of social courage which I haven’t yet produced to break out of that. It’s a little bit like the position which many people would have held a couple of hundred years ago over slavery. Where lots of people felt morally uneasy about slavery but went along with it because the whole economy of the South depended upon slavery.”

We’ll come back to this.

So, my Big Bookish Idea was pretty much average-size on arrival. I had a fairly common author-moment: image swims up out of the depths, brief languid backstroke on surface, submerges again. The visual was of my heroine, a female but otherwise blurry, balanced on the snout of a very large, clearly unearthly creature.

So far, idea not so big. Plenty of stories about humans, somewhere in some future, interacting with large, alien animals.

The next time she showed up, more clues: The animal was injured, she was unafraid, she was there to help it. She was a teenage girl training to be an exoveterinarian. A bit later, her environment appeared: a science-based cloister and exovet clinic/school on a slightly down-at-the-heels Mars. Soon, the girl, named Zenn, begins to have disorienting interludes where she seems to be “sharing” thoughts, or at least sensations, with some of her alien patients. She was raised in a house of science, however, and knows there’s no evidence for anything like ESP. But something bizarre is going on. Or maybe she’s just losing her mind.

Then came the backstory of xenophobic, anti-alien sentiment running through the societies of both Earth and its Martian colonies. They have reasons for this, but they’re questionable. Now I began to glimpse the outlines of my Big, or at least, Large-Format-Paperback Idea. (Not claiming unique, here, of course.)

A quick but relevant aside: since moving from Los Angeles to a farmstead in Iowa several years ago, I became involved with several different local animal welfare groups. So, there are horses on our pastures rescued from abusive situations, and I’ve worked to rehab and re-home equines and other animals confiscated by the authorities, from full-grown black bears and cougars to Burmese pythons and alligators. I’m saying I have some experience with humans doing some pretty bad things to animals, generally because it never occurred to them that they needed to behave in any other way, basically because these animals weren’t human. So, speciesism.

Of course, speciesism as a trope is anything but new in SF&F. In fact, it’s rife, and you can likely think of more examples than I can. But, since it’s a subject that touches most of us in our daily lives, I was more than happy to park at least one of my theme-mobiles in its front yard, put it up on blocks and remove the wheels. And now we’re edging back around to Mr. Dawkins.

Those of us who eat meat or eggs or drink milk, wear leather, or benefit from experimentation on animals? Hard to say we’re not overt speciesists, and Dawkins basically admits this, at least where his grocery list is concerned. One can, and most people certainly do, argue the moral merit of human needs trumping all other species’ needs. But as more and more research results verify the continuum-ness of the human-animal continuum, the argument from simple superiority gets less tenable. So, on one side,  the usual arguments from marginal cases, discontinuous mind theory and the centrality of consciousness gambit; on other side, religion or pure philosophy. The speciesist position, in the end, still seems to be “Humans aren’t just smart animals. They’re different in a way that makes them better.” Dawkins doesn’t make this argument about food animals. He bluntly admits he lacks the “social courage” to bring his behavior into line with his intellect and go vegan. I applaud his honesty.

But especially concerning to me, especially in the West, and especially significant for our society’s young, is our often-noted, rapidly increasing distance from anything remotely non-human in our lives, beyond the special case of non-food companion animals. Out of sight, out of caring. This is one of the reasons most of us, perhaps Mr. Dawkins included, are entirely able to overlook, rationalize or repress that fact that most of the animals we eat are raised and killed hidden from us in factory farming or similar operations that are anything but humane (I grew up in the rural Midwest. I know this for a plain, no bullshit fact. Appetite-suppressing details on request).

So, do smart, thoughtful humans still continue to exploit animals in some significant, morally troubling ways? Yes, they do. Would our rampant speciesism change if, like my heroine Zenn, all humans could intimately sense the pain and fear of animals in distress? Maybe. Maybe not. Humans have a long, complicated and confounding history with the animals they eat and/or use in other ways to enhance or, in some cases, that allowed certain human cultures to assemble themselves in the first place.

So, my idea, big, pocket-sized, well-worn or otherwise, was simple (and, one hopes, somewhat camouflaged within the off-world adventure, skiffy intrigue and cross-species thought-sharing). That idea was to put some of my story’s attention on what human empathy and compassion mean, or what they might provoke, or how they could affect someone with an inhumanly intimate connection to the interior mentality of the Other. Plus… exovets wrangling big-ass alien animals. I know! Right?


Zenn Scarlett: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Delilah S. Dawson

Let’s talk about sex. Yes, sex! Why? Because Delilah S. Dawson wants to, and it’s her Big Idea slot, for her new novel Wicked As She Wants. And I am okay with that. So here we go!


Yes, that’s a dude in a blouse with an oiled chest, but I promise you’re in the right place. My books might end up on the romance shelves, and there may be a steamy hot scene on an airship brothel. But there’s a Big Idea at work—and one that goes far beyond frivolous bodice ripping and sparkly vampires. See, it’s a little known fact that at the heart of every romance book, there’s something very special.

An empowered woman who likes to have sex.

And that’s not a bad thing, a shameful thing, or an embarrassing thing. That’s a great thing!

There’s this strange discrepancy in the book world: at the base of everything we do, human beings crave love and sex, and yet to delve too deeply into romance alters how a book is critically viewed.  A little love in a good book makes it great and iconic; what would Tolkien’s books be without Aragorn and Arwen? And yet once you open the bedroom door and describe a woman’s passion, much less a man’s testicles, the entire tone of the book changes, and suddenly it’s on a different shelf and not “literature”.

In the words of Rodney Dangerfield, romance writers get no respect.

At least not until they hit the New York Times Bestseller list or make seven figures a year, which actually happens pretty often, and for good reason. Romance books can have characters just as complex and stories just as masterly as any other genre– the heaving bosoms are just a bonus. And you can pick up some good tips for the bedroom, too.

I didn’t actually set out to write romance, and I’m not going to lie: as a shy Southern girl, I had to get drunk to write that first sex scene. I’m a geek, and my Blud series started with a dream I had after watching too much Buffy: I woke up naked in a weird forest with a hot dude in a top hat staring at me. He sounded just like Spike, and I knew that he was a blood drinker but not a vampire. The world of Sang expanded from this tiny seed. Half the people are blood drinkers, but I didn’t want to follow the rule about wealthy vampires ruling the world. So I ghettoized them and filled the forests and back alleys with likewise blood-drinking animals. The adorably fuzzy rabbits want to suck your bone marrow with a straw, the horses are man-eaters, and the rats are the size of corgis and a hundred times more vicious. Transportation is therefore handled by armored train, dirigible, and submarine, and clockwork animals fulfill the roles of pets.

Voila! A new steampunk science fiction/fantasy world is born.

But you won’t find it in the Scifi/Fantasy section of your bookstore or on i09. Not only because Blouse Guy is on the cover or because I was asked to add hot sex scenes to my fantasy adventure, but also because the focus is on the heroine, Ahnastasia.

I’ve always felt like Princess Anastasia Nikolaevna got a raw deal in history: she was killed for political reasons before she was even a threat. That’s why I’ve given my Ahna fangs, talons, and the nature of a fierce and royal predator. When she first meets Blouse Guy, she tries to eat him. Luckily, she fails. Their romance is dogged by extraordinary hindrances, like vampiric political assassins and bloodthirsty unicorns, but they also face the same sort of problems you see in our own world: prejudice, destiny, pride, duty, addiction, bad choices, and trying to understand who you’ll become in a relationship without losing yourself completely. It takes a strong man to love a strong woman, so don’t let that blouse fool you; this romantic couple can fight back to back and leave a pile of drained bodies in their wake.

And you know what? There’s awesome sex, too. Because no matter how erudite we might like to appear, at the heart of all good stories is love, and at the animal root of all love is terrific sex. Finding her power as a sensual woman and taking control of her sexuality is part of Ahna’s journey to becoming a queen, and the story would be incomplete without opening that door for the reader. Although romance might not garner respect in literary circles, the romance genre takes a huge chunk of the market, with 48% of mass market paperback sales categorized as romance. From historical fiction to urban fantasy, the majority of these stories focus on a woman who undergoes a major life change related to owning her own pleasure and finding confidence, love and/or her destiny.

And women like that sort of thing.

Guys should, too, because a confident and passionate woman is far more likely to rock your world, in bed and out of it.

So that’s my big idea: it’s empowering to have great sex, to write about great sex, and to read about great sex, even if you do so covertly on your e-reader.

Your homework is to do at least one of those three things today and report back about how you feel afterward. If the answer isn’t “awesome” or “empowered”, remember that practice makes perfect. And if you ever need recommendations for intelligently written romance, just ask. If I can get over my embarrassment and write a sex scene in a submarine, so can you.


Wicked As She Wants: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Wesley Chu

You like odd couples? In The Lives of Tao, author Wesley Chu has got an odd couple for you. A very odd couple.


I originally had a little trouble pinpointing the Big Idea for The Lives of Tao. Should I use the big idea I had when I first conceived the story, or should I go with the other big idea that manifested at the end? After all, big ideas could morph, couldn’t they?

I’m not great at elevator pitching, so for The Lives of Tao, I developed a little skit between the aliens in the book and humanity:

Alien: I’ve possessed you. Now, do as I command.

Human: Hmm… yeah, no. I don’t think so. I’m going to go watch TV instead.

Alien: But I’m all wise and advanced and…and stuff.

Human: How about this? Make it worth my while.

I’m one of those writers who love to build a mousetrap, plop the little fuzzballs in, and watch them suffer. In The Lives of Tao, I began by asking this: “What if many important historical events since the beginning of time were just part of a war between two alien factions using humanity as pawns in a massive game of chess?”

Now, aliens messing with mankind is a time-honored tradition in science fiction. We’re just so easy to mess with. For some reason, they’re always here to eat us, enslave us, take our resources, or steal our women, and they usually have a pretty easy time of it. After all, they’ve got the ships, technology, and in Joss Whedon’s case, space chariots. Humans only ever win, thanks to good ole’ fashioned ingenuity, in the last thirty minutes of the movie.

So that was my original mousetrap. I had assumed we humans were the mice and the aliens, known as the Quasing, were part of the trap. But then, I made two crucial decisions that changed the entire concept of my original big idea. I decided that, in order to complicate the plot and the relationship between the humans and the aliens, the inhabiting Quasings couldn’t control the humans; they could only talk to them. Then I made it so that once the alien inhabited the human, they couldn’t leave until the human host dies.

Suddenly, the aliens weren’t part of the mousetrap. They were right there alongside the humans trying to figure things out. This is when the big idea morphed. See, it is one thing to be someone in a position of power: when you’re the boss, captain, or leader, you give orders and others follow. Easy as pie. There’s little deviation from that chain of command.

However, what if you’re not the boss? What if you’re an all-wise ancient alien inhabiting a human and you want him to do something, but he refuses? Toss in thousands of years of alien manipulation, a civil war over control of humanity’s evolution, and now the bigger, better mousetrap is set. Time to put the little fuzzballs in and see what happens.

At the beginning of The Lives of Tao, Tao’s host had just died while on a mission for the Prophus, one of the factions fighting in the alien civil war. Unable to survive long in Earth’s atmosphere, Tao fled into the first available human, Roen Tan, an overweight lazy guy meandering through life.

I had created complete histories for Tao and Roen, and wanted to see how their personalities clashed. On one hand, we had Tao who was an all-wise alien who usually inhabited super spies and once had inhabited the likes of Genghis Khan, Lafayette, and the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. On the other hand, we had Roen, an overweight thirty-something loser who still ate frozen pizzas for dinner, got tongue-tied around women, and sucked wind every time he climbed a couple flights of stairs. As expected, the relationship started out testy, but what grew out of that trial by fire gradually turned into the highlight of the book, and it surpassed every other plot point in the novel.

So in the end, the big idea for The Lives of Tao is about the friendship that grew between Roen and Tao as they worked together to achieve both their objectives. Along the way, Roen helped Tao continue the fight against the humanity-manipulating Genjix while Tao helped turn Roen into a dynamic character who managed to lose weight, develop a stiff jab, find love, and ultimately discover a purpose in life.

All Tao needed to do was give Roen a reason to make it worth his while.


The Lives of Tao: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

The Big Idea: Martin Berman-Gorvine

Sidewise Award-winning author (and my college classmate) Martin Berman-Gorvine likes playing with time, space and narrative forms, all of which combine not only in his latest novel, Seven Against Mars, but also in this very Big Idea, in which the heroines of his novel, shall we say, have their opinions on the book, reading and several other topics.


I sighed and took my fingers off the keyboard. “Girls, how can I finish this essay for John Scalzi’s blog if you keep interrupting me?” I said.

“But part of the point you’re making is that characters gain a life of their own and take over your story,” 15-year-old Rachel Zilber said in her lilting Polish accent. “So we’re not interrupting, we’re helping you!”

“Yeah, you writers think you’re all that,” Katie Webb said, her Texas Panhandle twang thicker than… I’d better not complete that simile, she’s pretty sensitive to any perceived slights to her country, and in the 22nd century, whence she comes, the Republic of Texas is one powerful piece of the former USA. “But without readers, your stories just lie there on the page like cow flops on my Daddy’s back forty. Ain’t that right, Rachel?”

Rachel’s red curls jiggled as she nodded agreement. “That’s what I found out, Katie. I mean, I sure was surprised when the silly stories I wrote on my typewriter to keep my mind off things…”

“…like the fact the Nazis had you and your parents trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto along with thousands of other Jewish people who hadn’t never done them no harm…”

“…somehow came to life, and I woke up on the jungle planet Venus, where my very surprised hero Zap-Gun Jack Flash practically tripped over me, and then you practically tripped over both of us! But even more surprising was…”

“The fact that your heroine, the beautiful Martian Princess Anya Olympulska, looked just like you and spoke Polish, only she thought she was speaking Martian?”

“She does not look like me—” Rachel said, as Katie snorted— “and stop interrupting, Katie.”

I put my head in my hands and groaned. “I wish you’d both quit interrupting and let me get back to work!” Why did I have to make them teenagers, anyway? I have two teenage sons, you’d think I’d have had my fill of annoying adolescents. But I’ll get my revenge on Rachel and Katie in the sequel, where they’ll have to rescue an even younger, much brattier girl from the tyrant of Venus.

“As I was saying,” Rachel said, “it was even more surprising that once I was there, in my own ‘fictional’ world, I couldn’t make any further changes to it just by writing about them.”

“Less’n you showed them to me first,” Katie put in. I eyed her warily. She was the same age as Rachel, a little shorter even, but with muscles solid from farm work in a country that had gone back to a pre-industrial age. But was her accent always this strong, or was she laying it on a little thick now for some reason? Testing me, maybe, to see if I was apt to confuse a rural diction with low intelligence? I hoped not, partly because I was the one who’d created her but mostly because I didn’t want to wind up with a black eye.

“Oh, and by the way, you can have these back,” Rachel said, handing me books by Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. “Neither of us could make head or tail of them.”

“But some people might say that Seven Against Mars is postmodernist science fiction, in the same vein as Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books or the Zoe Kazan movie ‘Ruby Sparks,’” I said, carefully reshelving the books in the special section of my room I reserve for books I swear I’m going to get around to reading but never do.

“It’s a lot of hogwash, you ask me,” Katie said. “And I’ve washed a lot of hogs in my time, and let me tell you, when I’m done that water don’t half stink. I ain’t surprised I ain’t never heard of Monsieur Bar-thees and Monsieur Derriere in the universe Rachel and I live in, ’cause their stuff must come from some parallel universe where people find French literary theory interesting!”

I wasn’t surprised she felt that way. Postmodern theory never held much appeal for me, even when I had to study it as an English major at the University of Chicago, and in recent decades many of the novels written in this mode seem to have devolved into a game for readers, albeit a game with all the fun drained out of it.

“It’s not a game for us,” Rachel put in, as if reading my mind. “We only wanted to use our ‘powers’ to rescue our parents from the real world—mine from the Nazis and Katie’s from a bunch of marauding Alabamans.”

“Don’t give away the whole story, Rachel,” Katie said. “We still want people to read the book. It’s got an evil villain it, and laser guns, and space battles, and that dangerous mix of virgins and live volcanoes. What’s the matter? What did I say?”

Rachel was turning redder than the planet Mars.


Seven Against Mars: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s Web page. Visit the blog of the book’s characters. Follow the author on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Josin McQuein

Today’s metaphor for ideas comes to you from Josin L. McQuein, author of the new YA science fiction book Arclight. And what is that metaphor? Hint: They are small, they are many, and if you are not careful, they are coming for you — or at least at you, in their multitudes. Prepare yourself.


I got my first big idea when I was an idiot.

I was a teenager, and had come to the conclusion that getting paid to make stuff up was the best invention of all time, so I was going to be a writer – YAY!

Honestly, that was entirety of my thought process. I wanted to write a novel. Any novel. The characters didn’t matter. The plot didn’t matter. Someone hand me a pencil and get out of my way. Unfortunately, those things that didn’t matter kind of did, and there was no story without them. Besides, novels were too long – I’d never be able to write that many words.

I was stuck.

Then the ants came.

They came by the thousands, descending on a rain forest hikers’ hostel in South America, skittering down walls in the pitch black of midnight. They terrified with their silence and their numbers. They spread out, filling every space, and covering every surface – human skin, included. And as they spread, they consumed. With one unimaginably tiny mouthful multiplied by a seeming infinity at a time, they devoured all of the vermin in the hotel – rats several thousand times their size, and scorpions who, by right, should have been the higher predator.

Even the hikers weren’t immune, because no matter how many they stomped, or sprayed, or torched, there were more ants waiting to replace the dead, and they had absolutely no aversion to trying a bite or twelve of human-on-the-run. By the time the sun came up, the hostel had become a battleground, barely held, where the humans chose to make their stand against the horde. In the silence that followed the struggle, they found themselves less victors, and more survivors left behind in a place that was fundamentally changed.

They were changed.

They had seen the superiority of human ingenuity fall to something that, in its individual form, was miniscule – insignificant. But together, all of those teeny tiny pieces became something fearsome and unstoppable.

And that became the big idea that mattered – the one that said “big” was the wrong way to go.

Rather than having a society fall to ruin beneath their own Tower of Babel, I wanted to go the other way, touting the brilliance of things that got smaller and smaller until those things could slip between particles, and alter the fundamental definition of reality.

Viruses were tiny enough to fit the bill, but those had been run into the ground lately. I wanted something different; I wanted my devourer. I wanted my ants with their singular focus and hive mind. And I had just enough knowledge of fact and fiction to create a use for them by pairing them off with nanotech run amok.

I started pulling scenes from different pieces I’d kept for years, and stitched them into a sort of Franken-novel that made absolutely no sense. (Zombies in space! Now, with extra vampires! Don’t ask about the unicorn. Seriously, you don’t want to know…) But it was a real start, and bit-by-tiny-bit, those ridiculous pieces transformed into something else.

A new setting came with hearing descriptions of the claustrophobia accompanying gradual blindness. Instead of starting the characters in a void, they were now on the edge of one, watching their world grow darker by the day. They’d fight it, of course, clinging to the daylight world they knew, but would also always be faced with the inevitability that the darkness was coming for them.

Local and world news fell into the mix, highlighting the dangers of viewing the world through the lens of a single opinion held by a single person. I wanted to explore how quickly paranoia can turn to mass madness, and how a charismatic individual with motives that seem logical, or at least well intentioned, can destroy a community. And with that, a queen stepped up to lead my little hive.

Each new idea bumped and jostled the others into line, creating the friction required for conflict, until, one day, I read through my notes and scribbles and realized they were all running together on a thousand tiny feet. Things clicked. They were no longer random pages or paragraphs or things I’d hastily written down while half-asleep. They’d become something both massive and cohesive, with a momentum I couldn’t stop.

I had characters! I had a plot! (I had an over attachment to ellipses, but I swear I’m getting help…) The important part was that the girl who couldn’t write a novel, now had one in her hands. And in the end, thanks to all of those little ideas, I finally had a big one.

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The Big Idea: Brian McClellan

Nothing is constant but change — and changing times can be an interesting opportunity for a writer to document the upheaval of societies, standards and even power structures (fictional or otherwise). So Brian McClellan discovered with Promise of Blood, the first of his Powder Mage series. Here’s McClellan to explain.


A little over three years ago, my wife brought home the first episode of a British television program called Sharpe, based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels. It was a wonderful show that featured Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe, a tough-as-nails officer rising up the ranks of the British army during the Napoleonic Wars. Needless to say, I was intrigued. A show where Sean Bean doesn’t die? Sounds like a blast.

At this point I was working on ideas for my next novel. I was a little down in the dumps from rejections over my last book and was looking for an idea that would really hook the imagination. I wanted to write something that featured magic based on gunpowder, and had been toying with the idea of a short story set during the Prohibition.

This all changed when my wife brought home Sharpe. By half way through the show I had decided that I’d be writing an epic fantasy novel based on the technology level of the Napoleonic Wars. By the end of the episode I had a rough outline in my head. I started writing it the next day.

I quickly realized the wealth of inspiration for a novel that could come from that time period. Napoleon’s rise to power and the subsequent struggle for control throughout the various Coalition Wars is an epic tale all on its own that could be viewed from any of a hundred different perspectives.

Men like Napoleon were products of the changing times, somehow managing to navigate the turmoil brought about by countless factions vying for control of the political and social landscape. During the French Revolution, the decadence of monarchs like Louis the XVI and Marie Antoinette was eclipsed by the brutal reign of Madame la Guillotine. The age of kings and their courts was coming to an end.

At the same time, the Industrial Revolution swept across Europe, changing the way people thought about everything from politics and manufacturing to agriculture and class roles. Technology advanced at a pace never before seen. These advances gave men the ability to feed and clothe the greater population, while also allowing armies to kill on a greater scale than previously imagined.

Kings were pulled down. Some empires expanded to include colonies in distant places; others were dissolved in favor of governments run by the people. Promise of Blood begins in this vein with a revolution; a bloody coup. Field Marshal Tamas sends his king and the high nobility of his beloved Adro to the guillotine, almost single-handedly beginning a new era of independence.

Tamas represents a rising class of sorcerers, ‘Powder Mages’, who gain speed, strength, and endurance from ingesting gunpowder. This new form of modern magic is at odds with the old elemental sorcery of the ‘Privileged’ which is practiced almost exclusively by the nobility. Caught in the middle are the common people, many of whom possess “knacks” or magical talents of their own.

I wanted the various magic systems to reflect the class struggles that follow a period of revolution and upheaval. I wanted to explore what would happen if magic evolved along with technology. How does magic change when gunpowder is introduced?  What if the very existence of this new technology of powder and steel changed the DNA of the magical world? How would it affect the outcome of a revolution?

Writing Promise of Blood allowed me to address themes of power, privilege, risk and revolution. Historical events like the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars helped inspire me to create compelling characters faced with the momentous task of rebuilding a world where not only society, but magic itself, is changing.


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The Big Idea: Sofia Samatar

In the novel A Stranger in Olondria, reading is the thing. But author Sofia Samatar asks: Is it the only thing? Here are her further thoughts about a life of letters (and beyond).


When I wrote A Stranger in Olondria, I wanted a whole world of my own, with all the details: hymns and hairstyles and dialects and desserts. Above all, I wanted books—and not just books, but literary history. I wanted to create both a world and its libraries.

The result is a novel about reading. Jevick, the main character, comes from a non-literate society, but his Olondrian tutor teaches him to read and write. After that, all Jevick wants is to travel to Olondria, the land of books. But when his dream comes true, his life starts falling apart: he becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young woman from his own country.

Jevick’s quest to get rid of his ghost brings up all sorts of issues he’s tried to suppress, such as his rejection of his homeland and his status as a wealthy merchant. It also throws him into a struggle he doesn’t understand, a violent conflict between rival Olondrian cults. His dilemma allowed me to explore not only the contradictions of self-imposed exile, but also the question of how well one can ever “know” a foreign culture. Jevick thinks he knows Olondria because he’s read about it, and because he possesses a single Olondrian friend, his tutor. He quickly realizes how much is missing from his view of this foreign country, including things his tutor has deliberately hidden from him.

He also begins to question the meaning of reading. Jevick lives to read, but he must come to terms with a world in which not everyone is literate, in which certain things are lost in the transition from an oral to a literate condition, and in which literacy is linked to oppressive power.

I wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where I taught high school English: that is, I was working between languages, and between oral and written traditions. The experience brought home to me the links between reading and writing, my favorite activities, and the history of colonialism. This was an awareness I’d grown up with, as my father, a Somali academic, wrote a book about Somali oral poetry and the anti-colonial struggle, and dedicated it to my brother and me. It was in Sudan, though, that these issues crystallized for me, leading to a book that celebrates reading, while also expressing some anxiety about it.

Without giving too much away, I can say that Jevick’s choices reflect his growing awareness that reading, while wonderful, isn’t everything. It isn’t the story. Most stories, in both Jevick’s world and ours, can’t be read. These are the stories of those who do not or cannot write, or of those whose writings are destroyed, deprived of interpreters, illegible or lost.

Ultimately, A Stranger in Olondria is a book-lover’s book, one that takes reading seriously, in all its beauty and terror. I worked hard to reflect some of the tensions between oral and literate cultures without taking a stand in favor of either. And along the way, I got to make up religious texts, epic poetry, manuals for dream interpretation, painting styles and critiques of painting styles, pamphlets on etiquette, musical genres and children’s books.

Of course, not all of that material wound up in the novel! I’ve got enough left over to fill a library.


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The Big Idea: Paul Cornell

London! Cops! The supernatural! Author Paul Cornell! What do they all have in common? The answer: London Falling, Cornell’s latest adventure, which puts a pair of the city’s finest on a most unusual beat. And how do they approach it? As Cornell explains, by being what they are: Cops.


London Falling is the story of a team of modern undercover police in London, who, in the pursuit of their duties, accidentally gain the ability to see the monsters and the magic of the conjoined cities.  (Because London is actually made up of two cities, Westminster and The City.  No, I mean in real life.)  After my heroes finish panicking, they decide the only way to save themselves and those they love is to use (real) police tactics against what is now clearly a truly terrifying ‘suspect’.

This is my first urban fantasy novel, the start of a series, and I like to think I’ve written it in the voice I used for my Doctor Who work.  That is to say, these are stories I have to tell, that come bursting out of me.  They’re emotional, and hopefully scary, and move along quite fast.

I’ve written on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog about how, while London Falling is very much an urban fantasy, it’s also a classic SF problem-solving novel in the tradition of editor John W. Campbell.  My heroes, being police, use their Ops Board to take apart concepts like ‘ghosts’.  They won’t settle for the mythic.  I have a rational basis for the psychogeography of my London, which will become clearer in each volume in the series.  And though this is a series, I’m determined that each book should be a complete story, that my heroes will close a case every time.

Writing these books has made it clear to me that I have a tendency to see the world in terms of underlying forces.  In my own life I track concepts like the gravity of capital, grace, the Marxist flow of history.  Sometimes I overdo it, and become like a Roman or a paranoiac, seeing auspices and patterns when there’s nothing there.  The London of my books is full of hidden influences, both real (like how the cities are shaped by planning permission and house prices) and invented, like the ‘extra boroughs’ that orbit the capital in some other sort of space.  (At least one of these can be accessed by catching a ghost bus.)  Add that to my heroes’ instincts to take apart everything they see, and you have a mechanism which makes me automatically examine both the world I created and the real one.  It’s startling, actually, where the police procedural can take one in that regard.

For instance, I have a scene set at a New Age Fair, where our heroes, new to the business of magic, go to work out what’s real and what isn’t.  They have to navigate a series of different maps, economic, political, social and magical, all inside one hall.  The bigger stalls at either end are where the magical power is, but that’s also because the richer stores can afford the bigger pitches.  Those with actual knowledge tend towards poor and wear old clothes.  And my two black undercover coppers discover there aren’t many non-Caucasians in this socio-economic group.  This conflict between hidden forces grows even more tense in the second novel, which I’ve just finished, underlying the plot of which is the insistence of a part of the occult community that money (rather than terrifying ‘favours’) should be allowed in their transactions.

These forces create the tectonic plates of hidden London.  I can feel them myself at two particular points.  If you’re in the capital, perhaps you could try them.  Get out of Tottenham Court Road tube, and go to the point where St. Giles High Street meets High Holborn, with St. Giles in the Fields (that name says a lot) on your right.  Before they built the new office blocks in front of you to the left, one could feel a weird dislocation at that point, as if planners and priests and magi had all failed to decide on something.  It was like a little No Man’s Land on the way to Forbidden Planet, a place where things got a bit seedy just for fifty yards.  Those new towers have balanced it somehow, but I can still just about feel it.  A dowser might say it’s about buried rivers or underground rail tunnels.  I don’t know what it’s about, unless the throne with the motto over it in that old church is relevant, but perhaps it’s all heading into psychoarchaeology now.

The other location is in Baker Street underground station.  Walk from the Bakerloo line down to the Eastbound Circle Line platform.  You’ll find yourself, before you get to the war memorial on your right, moving faster as you head down an actual physical hill, with the rumples and lumps of a meadow, hardly obscured by the flooring.  It’s like you’re suddenly, in the very heart of urbanity, being encouraged to rush down, like in childhood, or over the top, with the deaths of 1914-1918 waiting on the other side.  I feel something startling there, too.  The shafts of sunlight that can spring suddenly down into that station help with it.

I should mention, finally, that there’s one word that doesn’t appear in the book: ‘magic’.  My coppers and intelligence analyst just aren’t comfortable with it.  And I thought it’d be fun, like with the word ‘Mafia’ in The Godfather, to see how far I could get without using it.  Turns out that’s all the way.

I hope you’ll enjoy London Falling, and that it might give you a few more things to see and feel next time you’re in London.  Perhaps I should have talked more here about the characters, all of whom (particularly genius intelligence analyst Lisa Ross) are dear to me, all of whom we meet in depth.  But character, like everything else, is shaped by landscape, and, just for once, I wanted to write about what lies underneath.

Adieu, and thanks for listening.


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The Big Idea: Shana Mlawski

Author Shana Mlawski is on a quest to rethink the “quest” fantasy novel. Does she succeed in her novel Hammer of Witches? Here she is to make the argument.


Here’s a joke I sometimes tell when people ask me about the inspiration behind Hammer of Witches: “I was getting tired of medieval European fantasies, so I wrote a book about wizards in 15th century Europe.”

It’s not really a joke, though. I mean it. Let me explain.

Nowadays many authors subvert the tropes of traditional fantasy quest stories, mainly by making them meaner and bloodier. (As if the problem with Lord of the Rings was that it wasn’t violent enough!) But these subversions tend to avoid grappling with one of the biggest problems with quest fantasies: They’re friggin’ colonialist.

Consider the basic outline of the Hero’s Journey. A young peasant boy (he’s almost definitely a boy—also white, able-bodied, and straight) of unclear parentage leaves his home to answer a call to adventure. He quickly learns he has special talents because of his noble, or even divine, blood. He quests through dungeons, sea voyages, cities, and towns, which our omniscient narrator describes with guidebook precision. These stops provide the hero with villains to slay, victims to save, women to love (or be tempted by), and mentors who supply hints, prophecies, and magical gifts. Be they villain, bystander, love interest, or sage, these secondary characters have one purpose: to help the hero come of age and complete his quest. When the trials are overcome, our boy-hero takes his rightful place as a man, a warrior, a leader, a husband, a messiah, and, often, a king.

It’s a great story—one of my faves, and I say this without irony. And if the Gospels are any indication, Christians love this story as much as I do. The whole thing has a real New Testament vibe to it.

Hammer of Witches asks the question, “What would happen if you took that standard quest story and set it in the real world in 1492?” The answer is, things get real interesting real fast, because Christopher Columbus was a big fan of this story, too. In his letters and diaries he characterizes himself as a poor but brilliant man of mysterious origins who sets out on a holy quest to a foreign land. There, he is helped by the angelic Taíno people, who feed him and give him gifts to help him on his travels. But gasp! Some of the Taíno have revealed themselves to be aggressive non-believers who want to hinder our hero in his quest! Columbus reluctantly but bravely strikes down these foes and takes his rightful place as king—or, at least, governor.

Suddenly our favorite quest story doesn’t look so innocuous, does it? When the map in the front of the book is of Earth Earth instead of Middle Earth, the quest story reveals itself to be a justification for conquest. That’s why these stories tend to have omniscient narrators. For the justification to work, readers must hear only one side of the story, and no one must ever question the teller of the tale. Columbus would agree. He would never let the Taíno share their perspective. To him, that would be like asking if we should get Arwen’s point of view, or the orcs’. It doesn’t make sense, because, in his view, the Taíno are mere side characters in his own legend.

Hammer of Witches approaches the quest story from a different angle. Here the narrator isn’t an omniscient god but a semi-unreliable teenager who spends most of the book unclear on who’s the hero and who’s the villain (or if these terms are even useful). He’s surrounded by stories of Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Taíno, and Classical origins, which continually undermine his perspective. In this fantasy, characters’ powers don’t come from their pure, noble blood but from their ability to uncover and control the meanings of stories. Every time our narrator thinks he has a handle on these stories, some other character butts in to explain why he’s got it all wrong.

Call it postmodern, postcolonial, multicultural. You could even use the term “Talmudic.” It views history as less of a straight line leading to apotheosis but a series of arguments that are constantly in flux. That’s why the joke I made wasn’t really a joke. When you take the familiar medieval European fantasy story and actually set it in medieval Europe, the story doesn’t look so familiar at all.


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The Big Idea: Russell Davis

Russell Davis and I share a special bond: I am the current president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and he is my immediate predecessor in the position. As a result I’ve gotten to know him pretty well as a person (spoiler: cool dude). This makes me happy to introduce him to many of you as a writer, with a new collection of stories: The End of All Seasons, his first collection in nearly a decade. And, as Russell explains in his piece, what a decade it was.


The proper place to begin any journey is at the beginning, right? Let’s start there by me telling you right off that I’m not that Russell Davis. You’re thinking of Russell T. Davies, the guy who writes Dr. Who. It’s okay. I get that a lot. In fact, I get it so often that on at least one occasion, when we’ve been at the same conference, he took my room reservation.

I’m the other Russell Davis. The one you probably haven’t heard of, with perhaps the exception of conversations involving the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). And those conversations might have involved no small amount of cursing, raised fists, and general dismay. I’m the Russell Davis who started publishing back in the mid-90’s and has, to date, written and sold more than two dozen novels and over thirty short stories. The problem isn’t just my name, which is as common as old shoes, but that of all those novels, only three had my real name on them. The rest were written under various pseudonyms and house names. I won’t go into why here, but suffice it to say that if I can ever convince Amazon and Goodreads to combine pseudonyms with a single author page, it would make for a decent list.

All of this is a roundabout way of getting to why I’m here, and the big idea of my newest collection, The End of All Seasons. As avid readers, you already know that a great many stories follow the framework of the quest story or, as it’s often called, the Hero’s Journey. I’m no hero, not by any stretch of the imagination, but most writerly careers are quite a bit like a quest. I think most writers are on a journey, and their travels begin the first time they sit down to write. For most of us, the journey is ridiculously long and we spend an inordinate amount of time stuck in the Underworld, fending off demons and whatnot. Many of us discover that when we reach our goal, we set off down the road again, utterly unsatisfied with the work achieved so far.

The End of All Seasons isn’t a very traditional collection, but if there’s a unifying idea behind it, the journey is it. While I included a creative nonfiction piece, and even a handful of poems, the collection is organized around four stories, titled “The End of Winter”, “Spring”, “Summer”, and “Autumn,” respectively. I debated about this quite a bit, since “The End of Winter” was the first short story I ever sold at professional rates, and quite honestly, I’ve often felt that it could go quietly into the night, never to be seen again, and I wouldn’t be heartbroken. But to not include it would be a bit of a cheat, because once I started putting the collection together, the idea that I was on a part of my journey during the writing of all those pieces seemed too strong to ignore.

Most of the collection is stories that were written in the first decade of the new millennium, and thinking back to when and how they came to life, I’m struck by how much change was happening to me personally. During those ten years, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), got sick enough with it that I figured I’d be bedridden by now, got a divorce, got remarried, and had a new child. I came back to the world of the almost-well through the miracle of drugs, and the even bigger miracles of horses and my wife, Sherri. Despite having kids before all this started, I learned to be a father during that decade, and I might have learned something about being a husband. During those years, my father died, and with my mother already gone, I got the tiniest taste of what it might feel like to be an orphan. And along the way, I spent a couple of years as SFWA President, which is a task that ought to come with an automatic blood pressure prescription and an open bar.

And through all of it, I continued to write. Not always well, I suspect, but I believe many writers chronicle their journey through life in fiction. I believe we write what fascinates or obsesses us, we write what disturbs us, frightens us, what breaks our hearts and lifts us up. It all comes out in the pages somewhere, and to be honest, I’m lousy at hiding it. My stories are fiction, yes, but they are also therapy. The characters and situations as unreal as anything you might read by anyone else, but real enough to me to help me find the next step on the path – and the one after that, and so on – until eventually, I find my way back home. And then I leave again, because that’s what writers do.

We quest, we journey, through the seasons of our real lives and our fictional ones, all in an attempt I think, to understand the world and our place in it, just a little bit better. And that’s the big idea in this collection: the journey, for myself as a writer, and for my characters and the worlds I build around them. I hope you consider picking up the collection and seeing where those years and miles and words took me.


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The Big Idea: Guy Gavriel Kay

Home is where the heart is. But sometimes, when it comes to homes, there are people who seem destined to be heartbroken. Guy Gavriel Kay explains why, and the power of that peculiar condition, and how it comes to matter in his latest novel River of Stars.


Sometimes a reader’s question stops you cold. Makes you cast an eye back over your own body of work and think about it differently. This can happen with an academic paper or a thoughtful review, but it feels more immediate when it is a direct query.

“What is it with exile in your books?”

That’s what one of my publicists asked last month in the midst of an email covering all sorts of things from the need for me to write some essays for her (voila!) to new author photos (truth in advertising was hinted at), to timing the release of Advance Reading Copies of River of Stars into the blogosphere, to how many puns I am allowed to make on Twitter. (I won that one.)

She didn’t say, “Tell me about ‘exile’ in River of Stars”, which would have been fairly straightforward because it is a major theme there. (We’ll get to that.) No, she threw it out as an overarching thought across all my books.

I started to track back. (Some mild spoilers in this.) Right away, in Fionavar, we had Matt Sören exiled, and Aileron. And Torc’s father. Three in a row – in the first volume of the trilogy.

Tigana is so much about the implications and reverberations of exile, physical and spiritual. An epigraph from Dante sets it up:

                   All that you held most dear you will put by

                             and leave behind you: and this is the arrow

                             the longbow of your exile first lets fly.


                   You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone

                             is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes

                             up and down stairs that never are your own.


(You think I was going to miss a chance to quote those stunning words? That’s the John Ciardi translation of the Paradiso, by the way.)

In A Song for Arbonne the protagonist is in self-imposed exile from his homeland (very real, notwithstanding) and a woman flees that same homeland, later. In Lions of Al-Rassan, both of the male protagonists are exiled by their monarchs. The book came together for me in the research phase when I realized, from two different books, that the real figures who inspired my characters had been exiled by different kings to the same city at the same time. I don’t think anyone had ever noted it. It was a gift for me, as a storyteller.

The two Sarantium books have many characters leaving home for far away, sometimes by painful choice, sometimes under orders, one sold, one fleeing assassination. They all look at the city where they arrive through stranger’s eyes. Last Light of the Sun is anchored in the reality that an exile in that harsh northern world was utterly exposed and unprotected. One needed a framework of family and community to have a decent chance to survive. In Ysabel, the principle narrator is also a long way from home but he isn’t ‘exiled’. On the other hand, the two thousand year old love triangle at the heart of the book has three figures exiled in time, desperately far from their origins and their world.

In Under Heaven one of the female protagonists is ‘married to a far horizon’, sent into exile as a bride to a steppe tribe the empire wants pacified, and a different princess has set the plot in motion from her own marriage-into-exile. The response of poets to the sorrow of such women reverberates through Chinese literature and I wanted it in the book.

So, yes, I’ve been exploring this for a long time. The question nailed it. I owe someone a martini.

We all have our understanding of human nature and the world. Our themes as writers shift as we change as people and artists (or they should, I think). A motif might drift away, and later re-emerge to be explored differently – because we are different and the world is for us.

I find exile to be one of the most powerful ways to present and explore a character in extremis. The intensity of that. Longing for the homeland. The idea of exile also lets a novelist, if he’s done his or her homework, underscore elements of the society being evoked. Why are people exiled? What does it mean for them? For those left behind?

It also, from a technical, ‘writerly’ perspective, can set up a viewpoint for the reader: if someone is experiencing a new place (cynically, fearfully, arrogantly?), their observations and reactions become a way in for the reader who is, obviously, also ‘away from home’.

In River of Stars, my newest, the idea of political exile is a dominant one in the culture I’m shaping, drawn from harsh historical reality. As prime ministers and their followers came into and out of power around erratic emperors, the people that were ‘out’ were … well, they were way, way out during the Song Dynasty which inspired this book.

Exile could be mild – to your country estate or your home town. But it could also be, and more and more often it became, a way of killing a man (and his wife and children and extended family) without drawing blood. Exiling someone over mountains and through jungles to the steaming hot, malarial south had … predictable effects. A cycle of political revenge emerged in that dynasty (and in my novel) built around sending people to places where, as Goldfinger said to 007, ‘I expect you to die, Mr Bond.’

I don’t write novels inspired by history to offer easy parallels to our own time. That can feel lazy, or glib, or both. But I do find immense richness in seeing how the past is both startlingly similar and amazingly strange, and thereby giving myself (and the reader) something to think about in the midst of a story I hope will keep them turning pages late.

Let’s just say, as a conclusion, that I want you exiled from your own life in the world River of Stars creates. Then (extending the image) when you finish the book, you come home – with something gained from that time away.

In all the stories and studies of the mythic ‘hero’s journey’ it isn’t the adventure away that is critical, it is the coming home with treasure (of many different kinds, including wisdom), that is the key. I like books that take us away, and guide us back with something new. I try to write that way.


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The Big Idea: Mary Robinette Kowal

Short version: Mary Robinette Kowal is awesome and one of my favorite people on the planet, her two previous novels have both been nominated for the Nebula Award, which is a fine trick, and Without a Summer continues her streak of excellence handily. Now I’m going to get out of the way and let Mary be awesome in your general direction.


“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure;

seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”

Jane Austen, Emma

When I pitched Without a Summer to my editor, I described it as, “Jane Austen’s Emma against the Luddite rebellion.”

When we talk about Luddites today, we think of people who are backwards and don’t like technology. What was actually going on with the Luddites was way more complicated than that. The Regency was a time of great social change. It’s when we see the rise of the middle class. It has the beginning of steam power and the start of the industrial revolution. The Luddites were a movement that began to protest the introduction of automated looms.

Prior to this, cloth was woven by individuals at home, for a factory. The introduction of the looms reduced the demand for this labor. It also meant that workers were now employed outside the home, which suddenly caused a need for childcare. For this and other reasons, the looms were seen as a disruption of lifestyle and weavers began a series of riots. They were eventually stopped when seventeen of the protesters were put on trial in 1813, with the key members being hanged.

I used the Luddites as the basis for my coldmongers.

In my version of history, everyone has the ability to work glamour, or magic. For most of society it’s simply a decorative art that’s used to beautify the home. But there is one set of skills that is practical and that’s the ability to make things cooler. (Not cold, mind you, because full on refrigeration would break history.) Coldmongers can make things a few degrees cooler, but it’s difficult and takes a hard physical toll. As a result, it falls into the category of labor that is done by the poor and the young for the wealthy.

When the Year Without a Summer hits, which is a real historical event, the world had record cold temperatures and in my novel that forced the coldmongers out of work. This parallels what actually happened.

But it also allowed me to talk about class in ways that you don’t normally get to in a Jane Austen style novel.

In Emma, there are a dozen places where Miss Austen obliquely refers to servants and to Emma’s obliviousness to them. They are invisible and ubiquitous. In Without a Summer, by centering events on coldmongers I’m able to bring the servant class out of the background and on stage as actors.

I use Jane Vincent, my main character, to stand in for the role of Emma. She’s a young lady of quality and has a certain set of assumptions based on how she was raised. When Miss Austen wrote Emma, she said, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” because the character was often blinded her own beliefs.

In Emma’s case, those assumptions were about matchmaking. For Jane, with the Luddites and coldmongers, we get into a whole different set of prejudices.

It is a little frightening to take a character I love and make her flaws so visible. But that journey was the thing that excited me. That’s why I wanted Emma to meet the Luddites.


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The Big Idea: Will Ludwigsen

Before you read this Big Idea entry by Will Ludwigsen, about his story collection In Search Of and Others, I just want to say that I, too, loved the In Search Of television series to an insensible degree. And in honor of my and Will’s love of the show, here’s the opening theme.

Yes, that should set the scene for today’s Big Idea piece quite nicely.


When I was a kid, a television show called In Search Of hopelessly addicted me to weird epiphany. Hosted by Leonard Nimoy in the late 70s and early 80s, it examined the intractible mysteries of existence like ESP, the Loch Ness Monster, and UFOs. It often “solved” them too, usually with a big pseudo-scientific middle finger to Occam’s Razor.

Why believe that Amelia Earhart crashed and died off Gardner Island when you could imagine she was captured and turned by the Japanese into Tokyo Rose? Why think that settlers built the rock formations at Mystery Hill in New Hampshire when, hey, the Phoenicians might have?

That show (and the crackpot books I also read at that age) seriously warped my scientific education.

For one thing, I felt like an insider privy to arcane knowledge. Pissed as my father was that I couldn’t tell the difference between metric and imperial socket wrenches by touch, I still knew that there were pictures of ancient astronauts on the walls of Incan tombs and that seemed far more important. I figured that if everybody agreed about something, what was the point in knowing it?

For another, my endorphin rush upon learning new things became miscalibrated to the flamboyantly weird and surprising. There are ten times more microbial cells on and in our bodies than human ones? Meh, whatever. But there’s a PLESIOSAUR IN LOCH NESS? OMG!

I outgrew that, more or less, and these days I’m hopelessly skeptical. I’m probably just as mistaken about the world as I was then, but now it’s within the dull and conservative borders of “plausibility”– a confusion between cause and correlation, maybe, or a misjudgment between representative data and anecdote. That hulking shadow on the side of the road is either a bear or a cow, but it almost certainly isn’t Bigfoot.

Yet sometimes I miss being creatively, unabashedly, whole-heartedly, all-in WRONG about the universe in a way that seems most common to kids and lunatics.

Being wrong in that way was comfortably personal. When I was wrong about UFOs, it was because I wanted one to take me away. When I was wrong about ghosts, it was because I wanted to talk to someone with the cosmic perspective to tell me things would be all right. When I was wrong about the Kennedy assassination, it was because I didn’t want a squirrely little jackass to control the course of history.

Being wrong is really just a form of wish-making, isn’t it? You’re fitting what you want of the world onto whatever evidence you have. You’re making your own mythology, which might well have certain virtues over the received ones we take for granted.

Is it possible to cling too long to our wrongness? Certainly. Is it dangerous? Of course. Has being wrong caused millenia of human misery? Alas, yes.

But there’s a good way to be wrong, a way without the arrogance or petulance or zeal. Being wondrously and responsibly wrong means taking a moment to enjoy it, revel in it, and ask ourselves just why we want the world to be that way.

I was drawn to the genres I choose to write and read, science fiction and fantasy and horror, because they seem to be the literature of epiphany. They’re often about people who discover that their convictions about reality are more about them than the universe. I call these moments of “personal singularity,” realizations that change one’s perspective so completely that everything before seems primitive and alien.

I didn’t set out to write a collection of stories about personal singularities, but somehow In Search Of and Others seems to be one anyway. It has ghosts and abandoned houses and homicidal children and botched science fair experiments, and the thing those characters seem to learn over and over again is that you should be careful what you’re wrong about.

Why? Because you never know quite how right your wrongness might be.


In Search Of and Others: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read sample stories from the author. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Adam Christopher tried to resist writing The Age Atomic, a followup to his novel The Empire State, but the power of sequels compelled him! Aaaand that’s today’s gratuitous Exorcist reference. Read the rest of this entry now. The power of suggestion compels you!


To be honest, I never really thought I would be a writer of sequels. Don’t ask me why, but when I started taking this writing thing seriously, many years ago, I thought sequels and series were not for me. My favourite author, Stephen King, is – Dark Tower and Doctor Sleep aside – the master of the standalone novel. The young King had a lot of ideas and he burned through them at a remarkable pace in the late 70s/early 80s. If it was good enough for him, my novice writer mind whispered, it was good enough for me. I’m naturally impatient. Done, done and on to the next one, as the song goes.

Of course, I was also totally wrong. Stephen King might write standalone novels but they’re nearly all linked by location and by events, sometimes in very subtle ways. And I was fooling myself, too – as a TV junkie, a lot of the writing I love is part of seriesDoctor Who, Justified, Person of Interest, Firefly, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, and so on – television is all about story arcs and the continuation of theme across multiple, linked adventures. And comics. Boy, comics are in my blood, and yet I totally failed to see what was right in front of me in four-colour glory.

Okay. You get the point. One of the great things about a writing life is that it’s one of constant learning and development; evolution, if you will.

So let’s cut a long story short: I wrote a sequel and called it The Age Atomic. It’s a sequel to my debut novel, Empire State.

The big idea for The Age Atomic was a simple one: I wanted to write a 50s-tinged SF story about atomic robots, because that kind of pulpy, old-fashioned concept just sounds so gosh-darned cool. But it wasn’t going to be a sequel to anything and it didn’t get any further than that, just another idea to file away for a future project.

Around the same time, notes on the atomic robot idea still fresh in my mind, and all the while firmly telling myself that sequels were not my bag, I was interviewed by fellow author Chuck Wendig about Empire State – that conversation appears in the back of the book as a little bonus feature, and in it, you’ll see that Chuck asks me if I’d consider doing a sequel.

Well, I said, scrambling for an answer. Sure. Why not. I mean, the world of the book is bigger than I expected – in Empire State we’re presented with a very specific setting with its own rules… but what if those rules were wrong? What if there was more beyond the perpetual fog that surrounds the city of the Empire State, more than anyone suspected, including the characters in the story and, frankly, including me?

There was my sequel. I’ve found that each of my novels has, so far, been shaped by a single moment of realization where everything comes together and – eureka! I suddenly know I have something.

As soon as the interview with Chuck was done, I started making notes, combining my idea for a book about atomic robots with detective Rad Bradley, the hero of Empire State, discovering there was more to his little pocket dimension than he knew. Much like the first book, a dozen separate notions and concepts that I’d had floating around forever coalesced into something entirely new. As a fan of New York history, I had plenty of weird and wonderful real-life things – people, places, streets, even a strange car and a cigarette-smoking robot – to add in, as I did with the first book.

I learned a lot about writing The Age Atomic, too. I was writing a sequel but I still wanted it to be a standalone novel, enough of a new adventure, independent of Empire State, that someone who hadn’t read the first book would still be able to pick up and enjoy and, crucially, understand. But I’d never written a sequel before – although I’d read plenty, actually figuring out how a successful one works was a different kettle of fish entirely. How much backstory did I need? Did I need to recap anything, and how could I re-establish the world and the characters without falling into the “As you know, Bob” trap of exposition?

Writing The Age Atomic, with its mix of pulp detective noir and Silver Age science fiction, was a heck of a lot of fun, and a very valuable exercise, personally. It taught me about how to write a sequel and how to look at story and characters over a longer arc than just a single novel. Readers love sequels and series because they love characters and want to find out what happens to them next, whether it’s over the turn of the next page or in the first chapter of the next book. Characters are the heart of story; without them, you have nothing.

The Age Atomic changed the way I look at story and character, and I’m very glad I wrote it – and I’m very glad Chuck and I had that chat!


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The Big Idea: David Walton

The world isn’t flat. But what would it mean if it was? For his latest novel Quintessence, Philip K. Dick Award winner David Walton resurrected this and a few other ideas from antiquity and took them out for a spin. Here’s why he did it.


The “big idea” for Quintessence came from reading up on the wacky world of medieval science. People in Europe believed all sorts of crazy things before guys like Galileo and Newton joined the scene. The amazing thing is not so much how insane it all was, but how logical it was as well–as long as you weren’t too bothered about details like verifiable facts. I thought, what if it were all true? What if alchemy and astrology and all the rest of it described the true nature of the world?

Most everyone has heard of the four classical elements–Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Fewer people realize there was a fifth element as well, in its own way more important than the other four. Quintessence (literally, the fifth essence) was the material of the heavens, the godstuff that glued the sun and moon and stars to the sky and gave them their light and power. It was out of reach, of course, hanging up there where mere mortals couldn’t touch it, and alchemists of the day spent a lot of time trying to distill it out of earthly substances. This gave me an idea. What if the Earth really was flat as well? That would mean that at the edges, where the dome of the sky stretched down to the ground, the normally distant quintessence might just come within reach.

These two ideas–quintessence and a flat earth–flashed together in my mind and lit up like an alchemical retort. A quest to the edge of the world to turn lead to gold, heal any illness, and achieve immortality? It was the stuff of great fantasy.

I knew I wanted to treat the magic of this world seriously, as if it were science, with characters who (like Galileo and Newton) discovered how it worked through experimentation and logical proof. Enter Stephen Parris, a physician who helplessly watched his son die, cursing the inadequacy of his medical knowledge. He would be driven to seek forbidden knowledge, obtained in ways unacceptable to his culture, like the theft of human corpses and secret dissections in an upstairs room. When his daughter, too, fell sick beyond his ability to heal, where would he turn? Perhaps to the alchemist obsessed with immortality and planning a voyage to the edge of the world?

My alchemical potion needed some more ingredients: A menagerie of animals living at the edge, all of whom had evolved to use quintessence for survival. A manipulative villain intent on gaining power. The threat of shipwreck, starvation, mutiny, and attacks from fantastical sea creatures. The mixture really came to a boil, though, when I added a dash of my own personal history.

I’ve spent a lot of time in my life thinking about the creation/evolution debate. My Christian faith seemed to demand one conclusion, but my love of science wasn’t satisfied with any of the creationist rationale. In my research, I discovered that evolution wasn’t the first scientific topic to spark such religious controversy. Copernicus’s idea that the Earth might not be the center of the universe drew strong condemnation, for instance. Species extinction seemed impossible to Christians in the 1700s, who believed God had created the world perfect and unchanging, as did the idea that the mountains and oceans might have looked very different long ago. Even Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod met resistance: the lunatic was claiming he could turn aside the wrath of God by strapping piece of metal to his roof!

Most fantasy novels, despite the fact that they take place in medieval settings, ignore the fact that medieval European history was soaked in religious thought and conflict, and practically everyone (even the scientists) tried to understand the world through the lens of Christianity. When I thought about that, I knew that Stephen Parris would have to grapple not just with the religious establishment of his day, but with himself, as the magic he uncovered challenged his assumptions about life and the universe and everything he thought he believed.

By the time I mixed together all these elements, I had a story bubbling with arcane science, alchemy, human dissection, sea monsters, betrayal, torture, religious controversy, and magic: a heady and magical elixir. What else could I call it but Quintessence?


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The Big Idea: Jane Yolen (and Adam Stemple)

Attention: Jane Yolen is awesome. And Adam Stemple (her son and occasional co-writer) is nifty too. And that’s all I have to say at the moment. I’m going to let them talk about their new book, B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy) now.

JANE YOLEN (with a note from ADAM STEMPLE at the end):

Okay, I’m Jewish. I’m only called the “Hans Christian Andersen of America” because that was his name. Maybe I am the “Hans Jewish Andersen of America,” though that was most likely Isaac Bashevis Singer.

But every once in a while I have an idea for a Jewish book and fairy tales. And the new book, out this spring, is one of them. It’s called B.U.G (Big Ugly Guy).

My son Adam Stemple and I were casting around for an idea for a new rock-and troll fairy tale novel, and I said, “Golem.”

He thought I was clearing my throat. “I got nothing,”

I said it again. “Golem.”

And then he got it.

OK, I’ll admit it, as an idea it was pretty thin. I had to explain to him that the golem was a man-made creature, created in medieval Prague by a rabbi out of clay to save the Jews who were being killed at the usual unnerving rate by the locals. The creature is huge and unstoppable, animated by the name of God written across its forehead or on a slip of paper under his tongue. But just as a golem grows from a handful of clay into a monstrous protector of the poor and vulnerable (and usually Jewish), this little idea began to grow between us.

Quickly we got to “bullied Jewish kid”. That wasn’t much of a stretch. Then to “father is a potter”. (This was necessary. We needed a lot of clay you see. Not just the ordinary playdough most kids have lying around in colored swatches) Finally one of us said “klezmer garage band.” That was the genius part. Well, maybe not. Kirkus certainly didn’t think so.

And you thought writers outlined!

Adam insisted it had to be a modern story and not set in Prague, which seemed sensible. Neither of us knew a thing about Prague nor wanted to do that research. Nor did we think a book set in medieval Prague had much of a chance of selling in today’s market. Or being read by today’s kids. I thought we could set it in the Midwest where Adam had lived for the past twenty-five years and he could do the research, if we needed it.

But then we took those oddly matched elements and turned them into cohesive and coherent (coherent is always a plus in fantasy novels for young readers) book which ended up being about how the bullied can turn into the bully, how trust can be broken and then mended through tragedy, and how song can bring young adults together in the most organic ways. God, I love writing. That should be in a piece of paper slipped under my tongue.

The road to publication was rockier than most, strewn as it was with an editor who moved midway to Canada, a publisher who changed his/her corporate mind about the book, and a Jewish editor at a different major house who made us rewrite the damned book till blood leaked from our fingertips. And now he is thinking we need the music for the song lyrics in the book for the ebook version. That’s Adam’s problem, he is the folk-rocker/composer/musical genius, not me. Maybe he is even the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart of America. If so, he will need to borrow that white wig tied back with the sassy bow.

(Adam Stemple adds: Though I never let the truth get in the way of a good story (my mother’s career would be rockier if I had), I must insist that as a good Jewish boy, I already knew what a Golem was. And a Gollum. And the difference between the two. Though the thought of Gollum chasing Rabbi Loewe through the streets of Prague calling for his Preciousssssss does hold some appeal….)


B.U.G. (Big Ugly Guy): Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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The Big Idea: Moses Gates

We know (or can guess) how authors create characters in fiction — but how do you create a character in a memoir? Which means that the character is a real person, and you have to represent them truthfully, but also in a way that serves the book and engages the reader. What’s the trick there? For Moses Gates, author of Hidden Cities, the answer is to take everything about that real world person — and subtract


If writing a novel is like painting a picture – taking a blank canvas (or page) and creating a work of art from scratch, then writing a memoir is kind of like sculpting. A sculpture starts with a huge chunk of rock, has a vision of what he or she wants to create, and then goes about fulfilling that vision by removing the excess rock until he or she has the sculpture that he or she wants. The trick in sculpting – and memoir writing – is what you take out. You create a compelling story not through building plot, character and story from the ground up, like you would in a novel, but by leaving out all the pointless, boring, or unrelatable bits of your life and memory.

Memoir is taken from the French word for “Memory,” and unless you’ve got a case of amnesia (that would be an interesting memoir!), everybody already has enough memories to fill several books. I had starting writing Hidden Cities shortly after turning 35, which meant I had logged a bit over 300,000 hours of material. Even if I couldn’t remember 99% of my life, that’s still 3000 hours to work with. That’s a lot. After all, James Joyce once famously wrote 265,000 words (which is three times the length of my book), about a single day in the life of one character.

The first cut is easy. After all, while you might be able to start a memoir with “I’m four years old, running after a garbage truck on the streets on Knoxville, Tennessee with my friend Eric Watson” (which is my earliest memory), if the next 50 pages don’t progress past your wonderful relationship with Ms. Dolan your kindergarten  teacher, people are going to put the book down pretty quickly.

So I started with my base – crazy adventures, funny stories, poignant anecdotes. But that’s kind of like just seeing a random arm, toe, and left kneecap among the rock. An actual book has to have a story arc, theme, and/or sense of progression to it, otherwise it’s just a collection of essays. The stories were easy – creating this shape was a lot tougher.

First I started with the characters. Now, the reality is that we are, all of us, in real life, very complicated characters, far more complicated than are found on the pages of any book. We all have our moments of both whimsy and responsibility, triumph and failure, luck and misfortune. But we don’t have the luxury of showing all of these facets in all of our characters when writing – we have to distill. I went with a tried-and-true formula for writing memoirs, especially memoirs about subcultures, which is “average everyman follows brilliant but tragically flawed mentor into a strange new world,” (for anyone contemplating writing a subculture memoir, I cannot recommend following this format highly enough, but that’s another essay).

I chose to write myself as the average everyman, and the other characters more colorfully. But I could have just as easily wrote it the other way around. I devote an entire chapter in the middle of the book to a crazy night Steve (the brilliant but tragically flawed mentor) had, and me having to be responsible one who took care of him. I devote two lines in the epilogue to a very similar night where I was out-of-my-mind drunk, and Steve ended up having to be responsible for my inebriated idiocy. I shaped our characters by subtraction – by leaving out the second story, we weren’t simply two crazy guys doing crazy stuff, now there was some texture to our characters and their relationship.

The story arc was harder. I ended up writing it basically in three acts – the first one being “I wonder what’s out there to discover,” the second one being “holy moly, look at all this stuff out here to discover!” and the third being “well, this is great and all, but what’s the point of doing all of this?” Now, in actuality, I had all three feelings continually throughout the time this memoir took place. But by picking and choosing the types of memories and stories – funny, adventuresome, reflective – to leave in in the different sections, I was able to turn the book into more than just a collection of stories. I had found that connective tissue that molded the arm, toe, and left kneecap into something with a recognizable shape to it.

Finally, I decided I was going to have a theme – the theme of mental boundaries, how they limit us, and how they can be overcome. This was, basically, the decoration – a hat and some jewelry added to my sculpture, if you will, to give it some character and try to make it more than just another stone figure. Anytime I could remember – with traveling, with relationships, with ambitions – where I had encountered mental boundaries, I tried to work into the book. I wasn’t always able to do it (just like a jaunty fedora perched on the head of a sculpture of a Roman Centurion doesn’t really work), but the few times I was, I hope, served to tie the book together into a specific, easily recognizable work.

What all this did was serve to let me chip away at the bits of memory that didn’t serve any purpose.  Some of the stories were tough to let go (especially if they made me seem really cool), but once you get that vision of the sculpture in the rock, you don’t keep a chunk of marble sticking out of the back just because it’s a really pretty chunk of marble. Of course, you do keep it and save it for its own sculpture someday.


Hidden Cities: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Chandler Klang Smith

In this edition of the Big Idea, author Chandler Klang Smith confronts reality, the imaginary, perception, and, of course, Bob Dylan, whilst discussing her novel Goldenland Past Dark. Good morning! Hope you’ve had your coffee.


When one sees reality through the mind’s eye, what is created?  And what is erased, distorted, lost?

The last song on the Bob Dylan album Highway 61 Revisited is “Desolation Row.” Like most of the other tracks, it’s populated with surreal and carnivalesque figures: a tightrope walker, a fortuneteller, the hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, mermaids.  After what seems like a final verse (in which the players board the doomed Titanic), the music goes into a lengthy harmonica solo – presumably, the end of the song, the end of the album.  But it isn’t.  Like the false bottom of a drawer, it’s just there to conceal the most important content. When Dylan’s lyrics return, the imagery is entirely different from what’s preceded it:

“Yes, I received your letter yesterday / About the time the doorknob broke / When you asked me how I was doing / Was that some kind of joke? / All these people that you mention / Yes, I know them, they’re quite lame / I had to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name…”

Like a dream, the song has taken characters and situations from the speaker’s life and translated them into symbols, disguised them in metaphor. Sometimes reality only becomes bearable when glimpsed in the funhouse mirror of the imagination.

If I had one guiding idea when I wrote Goldenland Past Dark, it was this. My novel is about a young circus performer, Webern Bell, damaged physically and psychologically by a childhood that left him motherless, hunchbacked, and stunted. In the present day, he deals with everything emotional in his life (memories, love, grief, anger, rejection), through bizarre clown routines that come to him in dreams. When even that becomes too painful, he finds comfort with an imaginary friend, Wags, who also serves as his double, scapegoat, and replacement.

As someone who prefers the alternate worlds of fiction to any reality I’ve experienced, I can certainly relate to the impulse to make sense of life through fantasy. Yet I see something sinister in it too, and this was the tension I wanted to explore. The urge to retreat, to escape, can be a creative one, but taken to an extreme, it can be a form of delusion, self-erasure – psychic suicide. It also can let the dreamer off too easy. In the kingdom of one’s own mind, other people aren’t real, so there’s no need to consider anyone else’s point of view.

Which brings us back to the Bob Dylan song. For me, that final verse is so powerful not just because he reveals the logic underlying the creation of the song that precedes it, but because, for the first time, he acknowledges the presence of the listener he’s addressing.  And more than that, he’s communicating with this person – not just transmitting a message into the void, but continuing a conversation, responding to the letter he received.  As much as he wants to be left alone (“Don’t send me no more letters, no…”), the hope of being understood by another has motivated and inspired him all along.

The point of making art isn’t just to create a space where you can go to sort out the nonsense of life; it’s to open up this space to others, too. By the end of Goldenland Past Dark, my protagonist makes himself vulnerable in this way, and consequently, grows up as a person and as a performer.


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The Big Idea: Deb Taber

We all have ethical perspectives, but what happens when a writer tries to get inside the head of someone with a, shall we say, truly unique take on the ethical responsibilities of the human race? Deb Taber, author of Necessary Ill, may have an insight into this particular trick.


Survival is an instinct. Despite the complexity of the human brain, on a basic biological level our bodies, our genes, want to survive. Not just survival of the individual, but survival of the species as a whole. But what do you do about survival of the species if reproduction is out of the question? That’s the big idea—or rather, the big question—behind Necessary Ill.

The science fiction that has always fascinated me most is that which takes a scientific fact or premise and stretches it into a shape it was never meant to fit. For me the ideas  began with a book titled Cats are Not Peas by Laura Gould.

Ms. Gould found herself the owner of a male calico cat. Sounds benign on the surface, right? But if you know much about cat genetics, then you know that in the XX-or-XY-only world we’re taught in science classes, male calico cats cannot exist. This is (in very simplified language) because the genes for black fur and orange fur in cats are both on the X chromosome, so to get both black and orange on the same cat, you need two X chromosomes. What Ms. Gould found out in the search to understand her pet genetic anomaly was that genetics are far, far more fascinating and complex than Mr. Mendel’s peas.

Humans are far from exempt from such genetic possibilities, and with a few simple changes to our basic sex chromosomes you get things that shouldn’t be possible, like our friend the male calico cat. Add a liberal dose of science fiction and you get humans who have a whole different perspective on the survival of the species; one not centered on reproduction.

In Necessary Ill, the neuts (naturally genderless humans) have many pursuits to satisfy this basic urge of mammals to ensure survival of their own species. Some go into medicine, others teach, others research and develop methods for helping the human race overcome its need to overconsume and create long-lasting waste. But what if, with the drive to reproduce removed and the aptitude toward science in place, all that you learned, all that you could see, told you the primary threat to human survival, and the solution was clear and logical: cull the population to more manageable levels?

That’s where the spreaders come in: neuts who spread carefully engineered plagues with the end goal of survival of the species over survival of individuals. And they must do so without promoting one type of human over the other, bypassing racial, socioeconomic, and all other bias they can quantify. The challenge here was to create the story’s main protagonist, Jin, a spreader who firmly believes in the rightness of mass murder for mass survival, yet make that character an engaging, even sympathetic, character.

For me, the key to Jin was understanding the background of the thought process Jin comes from: Jin’s own quest to understand the reason why the answers it sees so clearly are considered so wrong.


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