I got back from Ireland and this stack of new books and ARCs was waiting for me. What here would you be happy to have for your own? Share your thoughts in the comments.
I got back from Ireland and this stack of new books and ARCs was waiting for me. What here would you be happy to have for your own? Share your thoughts in the comments.
It varies. But it’s generally pretty nice.
I love traditional fantasy. I love the magic and the quest. I love the perils, the monsters, and the politics. So when I set out to write Bursts of Fire, I wanted to create a clever, light-hearted heist romp fantasy.
Ever have a story grow?
Ideas beget ideas prolifically, and the story became an epic political and family saga. When I spoke with Laksa Media about publishing my novel(s), the topic of the central driving idea came up. Laksa Media’s mission is to bring social issues to light for examination and discussion through fiction. When Publisher Lucas K. Law asked me what social cause my series addressed, I looked at him for a moment and blinked.
But I immediately knew the answer to his question. Addictions. Because the subconscious plays a role in story creation, even when the conscious mind is unaware of its influence, the subtext was there all along. It only took his question to make me see it—The Big Idea.
Why addictions? For me, the answer is clear. There is no family that has not been touched by addictions, including mine.
Take James (not his real name), a former boyfriend.
I met James when I was a newly-single mom breaking into my first semi-professional acting role. James was a pro, and if not handsome, he was charismatic, highly respected, and talented. He was also an alcoholic. And he was attracted to me—of course, at a time when I was feeling most unattractive and vulnerable.
James only stayed in my life for about six months, and those six months were wild. I was cautioned about him early on, but he made me feel like the only woman on earth. He also sent me away in tears. I knew he would never become a permanent part of my life, but I think the defining break came for me when my sister-in-law, a psychologist, warned me never to leave him alone with my children.
The idea of addictions has always fascinated and terrified me, which may be one reason why my subconscious had built this theme into the story when I wasn’t looking. But the topic dovetails perfectly with Laksa Media’s mission; it’s an issue of mental health hidden in shame, and needs to be brought into the open. Through Laksa’s editorial input, deeper research, and further drafts, Bursts of Fire—and the entire Addicted to Heaven series—deepened in complexity and richness.
Alcohol and drug addiction are little-understood forms of mental illness; for centuries, the stigma of the illness has colored research and treatment, leading to medical and health myths. Heredity, environment, social structures, economics, and politics all appear to have roles in the development and persistence of the malady.
Those with genetic conditions, such as untreated ADHD (which runs in my family), are statistically more likely to succumb. So are people with early trauma. Exposure to substances, particularly at a young age, seems to be a factor, and people diagnosed with addictions have measurable changes in their brain structure and chemistry.
Cultures which pair alcohol with masculinity, or those exposed to cultural trauma such as having children removed en masse from families, have higher rates of illness. Drug policy has been racially and economically influenced, from the British/Chinese opium wars to the criminalization distinctions between cocaine and crack.
But, much evidence is correlational, and causality is complex.
Treatment has ranged from exorcism, imprisonment, and forms of chemical intervention, to abstinence through willpower or religion. Harm reduction has shown promise, but it is highly controversial. Medical care models based on for-profit frameworks are not necessarily also based on best scientific research.
Hope for better treatments comes from our willingness to see addictions as chronic illnesses like diabetes, which can be treated through lifestyle and dietary adjustments or through medication. If addiction can be separated from its clinging stigma, perhaps we can create a similar range of individualized therapies with greater effectiveness.
The bottom line is we simply don’t have all the answers. But a seven-book series gives me the scope to explore a wide range of issues dealing with substance use.
The first book of the series, Bursts of Fire, releases three high-born, magical sisters into a world of abrupt change, to rely on their wits and unravel the mystery of a mad king’s inexplicable attack on their home. It abounds with breathless excitement, but it also deals with the first tastes of addictive spells.
Book Two, Flights of Marigolds, takes the adventure and politics higher with a rebel defeat and pursuit of a McGuffin, but it also takes the social issues deeper by examining the question of enabling and co-dependence. Later books in the series will introduce a pair of mischievous con men and a clever cat burglar and also address factors that make some individuals and groups more at risk for substance abuse than others.
The series considers not only adverse consequences, but also the joys and delights of substance use. Drugs and alcohol have been used throughout history and across cultures for celebration, rituals, social affiliation, pleasure, inspiration, and spiritual connection. Carl Hart, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Columbia University, notes, “If the vast majority of people who use any drug do not become addicted, you can’t blame the drug for addiction. The reality is, the overwhelming amount of drug use that occurs in a society is positive; not only positive, but life enhancing.”
So, yes: Bursts of Fire (and its ensuing sequels) is many things: a political epic, a family saga, a heist romp, a magical fantasy. It is also a garden of exploration for big ideas. Bring on the delights of fantasy novels. Bring on the thieves, kings, and magic users. Bring on the hidden social issues. Big ideas can grow from stories of rollicking adventure. And one can also have thoughtful content within a book or a series that is fun to read.
It was great!
Okay, that’s it, thank you for coming.
Oh, wait, you wanted details? Well, I mean, okay, I guess I can do that. In no particular order:
* Krissy and I actually started our trip a few days before the Worldcon started. This year the Worldcon was in Dublin, Ireland, and neither of us had been either in Dublin or in Ireland, and we wanted to make sure we had time to be tourists and see the city before we basically confined ourselves to a single convention center for several days.
And we totally did the tourist thing! We saw the Book of Kells! We visited the crypts at Christchurch Cathedral! We ate adequate Irish food at a tourist trap in Temple Bar! We visited the Guinness Storehouse, which is like the Willy Wonka tour with beer! And so on! I really enjoyed Dublin because, at least where we were, it’s very walkable and pleasant to get around in. Krissy also managed to get outside of the city when she and some gal pals took a day trip to the shore. It was all very excellent.
So, Dublin and Ireland: A+++, very much enjoyed, plan to enjoy again at some point in the future. It had always been a dream of mine to visit the country, and this initial trip to the Emerald Isle did not disappoint. I have hundreds of pictures; I will probably put some up in a separate post when I get the time.
* My personal Worldcon was also delightful. I did not overschedule myself, confining myself to a single event per day (sort of; more on that later), so that left lots of time for hanging out with friends, which is probably the major reason I come to conventions these days. I like most writers spend most of my time looking into a screen, so bulk-loading friendships at conventions is kind of an actual thing. I got to see friends from the US, of course, who had made the trip, but I also got to see friends from Europe and elsewhere who see less frequently, including some I’ve not seen for years. It was fabulous.
Of my own events, I have to say the highlight was the dance I DJed on Saturday. As ever, I wondered whether people would show up — but they did, and from 10pm, when the dance started, to 1am when it ended, the dance floor was never empty. There’s something delightful about a whole, fairly large room of nerds getting sweaty to the greatest dance hits of the last several decades. As for myself, it will not surprise you that in addition to being the DJ I also danced, pretty much for the entire three hours. Two things about that: I dance almost exactly the way I did when I was in my early 20s, and also, I am now 50, so I’m still feeling it on Tuesday. I could barely walk down the stairs this morning. I think if I’m going to keep doing this dance thing — and I will — I should probably stretch more than I do.
I also read from two upcoming books, The Last Emperox and A Very Scalzi Christmas, and both were well received. I got help in reading from the second by my very good friend Yanni Kuznia, who is also the COO of Subterranean Press, which is publishing the book. She was delightful reading as an exasperated boss having to deal with an enthusiastic but clueless subordinate, read by me. If you know either of us, you may realize that this was typecasting. She was wonderful.
I also did an interview with Diane Duane, who was one of the guests of honor at the Worldcon. Diane and I had known each other online for more than a decade but the Worldcon was the first time we’d ever met in real life. I’m very happy to say we got on like the proverbial house on fire, and that Diane is simply delightful, both to have drinks with and then to have a conversation with in front of a couple hundred people. It was, in fact, pretty effortless, and also, the phrase “I have two highly polished uranium spheres, watch what happens when I clack them together” may have come up at some point in the conversation. You had to be there for that, but it brought the house down.
* Overall I thought the Dublin 2019 Worldcon was well-run and enjoyable, but I think it struggled with the number of people who attended (about 7,000 as I understand it), which is a high class problem to have, but still a problem. The convention center itself could only hold so much programming, so there was a satellite site for the art show, autographing and some other programming, almost a kilometer from the convention center proper. I definitely got my steps in during the week. It also meant that while pretty much every panel was well-attended, there was a lot of stuff people couldn’t get into, and lots of queuing. I know everything I had was jammed, to the point that I added both a second kaffeeklatsch and a second reading in order to accommodate attendees who wanted to see me (and here I give mad props to the Dublin 2019 programming staff, who made those happen on the fly). Every Worldcon — every convention, really — has its own challenges. As far as I can see, Dublin 2019 mostly handled them pretty well.
* And what did you think about the Hugos this year, Scalzi? Well, I think by now everyone knows how I feel about the Best Novel win, and otherwise I was very pleased by how the results sorted themselves out. Mind you, this is in no small part because I thought the composition of the finalist lists was very very good this year — you pretty much could have had entirely different winners in every category, and I would still walk away, as a reader and appreciator of the genre, with a feeling of satisfaction. I like Hugo years when it is really hard to decide what is one’s first choice, and this was indeed one of those years.
The award ceremony itself I thought was really well done except for one thing, which I will get to in a minute. Things that were praiseworthy were the hosting, the set design (as well as the design of the Hugo itself), and the interstitial bits, which included live music (which it should have, this is Ireland) and also a chance for both hosts to have their minute in the spotlight. All accomplished in just about two hours and fifteen minutes! That was pretty impressive.
The one thing that didn’t work was the attempt at live captioning, which was shown on a screen hanging above the presenters and hosts. The live captioning was apparently done via machine rather than by human translators, and it showed, because it mangled what presenters were saying, which was sometimes comical, but also messed up people’s names, which was not appropriate. Ultimately it became distracting and disconcerting. Ada Palmer, who was there to present the Campbell Award, didn’t know why people were weirdly and spontaneously laughing at her speech (which was interesting but not intentionally comical), until she finally looked up and saw how the machine translation was mistranslating her words. She took it with good grace, but she deserved better.
* I wrote something here about Jeannette Ng and her Campbell win and speech, but then after I was done writing it I realized I wrote a whole post inside a post, so I made it its own post, which you can find here.
* I showed my ass yesterday on Twitter — funny, that! — in discussing the the Best Related Work Hugo win of An Archive of Our Own, the fanfic repository initially started by (among others) Naomi Novik. I saw a headline from The Mary Sue saying something along the lines of “Thousands of Fanfic Writers Now Hugo Winners” and I RT’d it and was all “Well actually it doesn’t work that way blah blah blah blah blah,” to which fanfic people were all “Yeah, we all know that, but we’re invested in the win anyway, and also that’s coming across as pedantic and dickish, so that’s a great look for you,” and I was all “Yeah, you’re right, I’m a dumbass, sorry.”
And I am sorry! I was pleased with the Archive win and happy for the fanfic folks because I think they get dismissed a lot when what they do is really fundamental fanwork, and I’m generally supportive of fanfic, both as a writer and a fan. And also, you know: Fuzzy Nation. It’s totally fanfic. I made people feel bad who I should not have made feel bad, and now I feel bad, which I should, because I was bad. I used bad a lot in that last sentence. Anyway. I done fucked up, and if you’re a fanficcer and I made you feel bad because I came across as an elitist dick, I apologize. That’s on me and there’s no excuse. I’ll do better.
(What was nice was that after I apologized people were all, “well, you’ve been traveling so your brain was probably fried,” which while accurate is not a good excuse. But I appreciate people rationalizing my dumbassery. Thanks, folks.)
* I’ve seen some grumbling in the usual whiny dude quarters about the Hugos being dominated again by women this year, and my thought about that is what it usually is, which is: Meh. Even if I were inclined to suspect A CONSPIRACY OF THE FEEEEEEEEEMALES, which to be clear I am not, it’s hard to complain when the individual works and people under consideration are so strong. Unlike other recent conspiracies one could think about, The Feeeeeeeemale Conspiracy did the actual work. If it existed, which it doesn’t. And on a personal level a bunch of the people who won (and who were finalists) are people I like, so there was that, too. It was a good Hugo ceremony for me.
(Plus! Because I’ve lost weight recently I fit into a suit I hadn’t been able to wear for a few years, and I will tell you what, it looked good on me. I’ll take it.)
In all, the Dublin Worldcon was really happy-making for me, and I’m glad I came. They made a good one this year, folks. I’m looking forward to the one in New Zealand next year.
In the aftermath of the Hugo Award ceremony this year, there’s been quite the harumph harumph about the fact that this year’s winner, Jeannette Ng, started her acceptance speech by offering up the opinion that John W. Campbell, the foundational science fiction editor for whom the award is named, was a fascist (you can read the actual words of her prepared speech here). Immediately there was fallout from various quarters, on the order that Ng was a) insufficiently grateful, b) should not have put politics into her speech, c) should have declined the award rather than denigrate Campbell, d) should have done pretty much anything other than what she did up there on the stage.
Unlike most of the people who are now grousing about this, I am an actual winner of the Campbell Award, so I think I am uniquely positioned to have some thoughts about this.
And what I think is: Hey, you know what? Campbell, aside from everything else he might have been, was a racist and a sexist and as time went on pretty deeply way the hell out there, and from his lofty perch he was able to shape the genre into what he thought it should be, in a way that still influences how people write science fiction — for fuck’s sake, I write science fiction in an essentially Campbellian manner, and it would be foolish for me to suggest otherwise.
Do those bigoted aspects about about Campbell make him an actual fascist? Well, I wouldn’t have characterized him as such, but then never thought to think of it in those terms, so there’s that. Now that I have been made to think of it, I know that the people and organizations I would have unhesitatingly called fascist actively incorporated the mechanisms of American racism into their worldview. It’s not exactly a secret that the actual Nazis looked to the United States’ “Jim Crow” laws for inspiration and justification for their own racism and, ultimately, genocide. American racism — the racism that Campbell both actively and passively forged into the structure of the science fiction genre — is at the very least an ur-text to fascism, and of course racism is so deeply ingrained into fascism today, and vice versa, that you couldn’t separate the one from the other without killing both, which, incidentally, is a very good idea.
So when Jeannette Ng stands up and calls Campbell a fascist, what I can say is: It’s not the argument I would have made (in no small part because, again, I literally never thought to make it), but it is an argument to be made. Nor is it a facile, unserious or utterly indefensible argument, for the reasons I note above, and for other reasons as well –seriously, go have a deep dive into some of the things Campbell believed and espoused; the Venn diagram for “Things Campbell Said” and “Things Fascists Say” is, uhhhhh, overlappy. One doesn’t have to agree (or know if one agrees) with Ng’s fundamental proposition to accept that she has a perfect right to say it, and by saying it, to force us to haul out Campbell’s track record and words to examine and interrogate.
Moreover, she has a perfect right to say it as she is up on the stage laying claim to the award that has Campbell’s name on it. Was what she said comfortable, and happy, and appropriately cheerful? No, it wasn’t, at least not the first bit of it. Certainly when I won I wouldn’t have (and didn’t) say anything of the sort, even though by that time I was well aware of who Campbell was a person, and his various imperfections. But, and quite obviously, I’m not Ng; the world of science fiction and fantasy was literally designed — by Campbell and many others! — to take me, a chummy white dude writing in the Campbellian/Heinleinian mode, to its bosom. The ease with which I slid into its good graces is pretty much a matter of record, and you can believe I was happy to slide right on in there.
The world of science fiction and fantasy wasn’t so felicitously designed for Ng and many others who are not, shall we say, chummy white dudes writing in a way Campbell would approve. She and they have spent years working to make the genre a place where they could work and build and thrive. She and they know better than I the work they had to do, where they found resistance, where they found help and from whom, and what they had to rebel against — and still have to. And she has a right to say all of those things, while claiming an award named for a person who she could argue would have been resistant to her presence in the field. Her relationship to him is not the relationship I have to him, in no small part because he would not have been to her what he would have been to me.
You can claim the John W. Campbell Award without revering John W. Campbell, or paying him lip service, and you can criticize him, based on what you see of his track record and your interpretation of it. The award is about the writing, not about John W. Campbell, and that is a solid fact. If a recipient of the Campbell Award can’t do these things, or we want to argue that they shouldn’t, then probably we should have a conversation about whether we should change the name of the award. It wouldn’t be the first time an award in the genre has been materially changed in the fallout of someone calling out the problems with the award’s imagery. The World Fantasy Award was changed in part because Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar were public (Samatar in her acceptance speech!) about the issue of having a grotesque of blatant racist HP Lovecraft as the trophy for the award. There was a lot of grousing and complaining and whining about political correctness then, too. And yet, the award survives, and the new trophy, for what it’s worth, is gorgeous. So, yes, if this means we have to consider whether it’s time to divorce Campbell from the award, let’s have that discussion.
Now, here’s a real thing: Part of the reaction to Ng’s speech is people being genuinely hurt. There are still people in our community who knew Campbell personally, and many many others one step removed, who idolize and respect the writers Campbell took under his wing. And there are people — and once again I raise my hand — who are in the field because the way Campbell shaped it as a place where they could thrive. Many if not most of these folks know about his flaws, but even so it’s hard to see someone with no allegiance to him, either personally or professionally, point them out both forcefully and unapologetically. They see Campbell and his legacy abstractly, and also as an obstacle to be overcome. That’s deeply uncomfortable.
It’s also a reality. Nearly five decades separate us today from Campbell. It’s impossible for new writers today to have the same relationship to him as their predecessors in the field did, even if the influence he had on the field works to their advantage. Moreover, and especially in the last few years, the landscape of science fiction and fantasy has changed, and Campbell and the writers and forms he championed simply don’t loom as large as they did. Nor should they — if they did, the genre would be stultifying, and, yes, sterile. Campbell and his cohort will never go away, and they still rise over the plain. But they’re the Appalachians, familiar and worn, known and explored. Meanwhile, the Rockies are bursting out of the ground and rising. Tectonically speaking, that’s where the action is. And that’s where so many of the new writers — Jeannette Ng and the other writers on the Campbell Award ballot this year, for starters — are to be found. Which is as it should be.
I’m proud of having won the Campbell Award. It was given to me by fans and it was in many ways my welcome into the fannish community, and the community of science fiction and fantasy at large. My love and honor for the award doesn’t change who John W. Campbell was, and doesn’t change because of who John W. Campbell was. I accept that the namesake of the award was foundational, and imperfect, and wrong in a number of his views. I accept that other people have the right to, and will, criticize who he was, even as they claim an award named for him, and, through the work which earned them that award, make a definitive mark in the genre. Jeannette Ng has done the work, and made her mark, and in her speech, gave me a lot to think about that I hadn’t thought about before. She gave us all lot to think about. I hope we will.
In the meantime, as a former Campbell Award winner, I congratulate Jeannette Ng on her win, and support her right to have said what she said, where she said it. I’m glad to share the field with her, and I look forward to her being in it, and shaping it, in the years to come.
A number of years ago, and during one of those occasional mud-flinging spats that happen in science fiction, a person who I will mercifully not name now tried to dismiss and minimize Mary Robinette Kowal as “no one you should have heard of, and no one of consequence.” This was when Mary Robinette had already become not just a writer of note, but someone widely admired and respected by her peers and colleagues for the work she had done for the community of writers and creators.
The intent behind this person’s words was cruel, and I believe intended to insult and to wound. After no small outcry, this person apologized, and Mary Robinette, who is one of the most gracious people I know, accepted it. But I for one never forgot either the insult to her, or the dismissive intent behind it.
Last night, Mary Robinette Kowal won the Hugo Award for her novel The Calculating Stars. This follows her and her novel also winning the Nebula and Locus Awards. Mary Robinette wrote a tremendous book, and right now she stands at the pinnacle of her field, with all the esteem that it could offer to her, all of which she has absolutely and definitively earned. I could not be prouder of my friend if I tried, not only because she is my friend, but because of her talent, her grace, her strength and her perseverance. I admire her more than I can say.
She has given the best answer to anyone who ever dared to say she was no one you should have heard of: She kept speaking. She kept speaking, and the world listened. And then, having listened, it celebrated what she had to say.
Congratulations, Mary Robinette. Keep speaking.
Dublin is pretty at night, with the moon peeking through the clouds.
Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas series was written a number of years ago, but only this month is being released in the US for the first time. Today, McDougall recounts the where, when and why this alternate history series was created… and what it’s like looking back on that creation today.
It was early autumn, but it still felt like summer. My teeth were sticky from ice-cream. Boys were flying kites in the bright blue sky. It was the end of my first grown-up holiday, a week with my best friend in a greasy hotel on the Costa Brava.
There was just time freshen up before the bus to the airport. A TV was on in the hotel lobby and as we hurried through on the way to the bathroom, I heard something about the conservative leadership election. I brushed my teeth hastily and headed back. I wanted to know how it turned out.
Then my brain processed that what I’d actually heard was that the election results would be delayed … as a mark of respect …
And the lobby was unusually crowded, and everyone was staring at that TV…
I joined them.
And we all watched the twin towers fall, for the first of hundreds upon hundreds of times.
Like millions of others, I felt history shifting, splitting in two.
When I got home – also like millions of others – I picked up the habit of watching the same horrific footage over and over, as though it might somehow play out differently. Or as though, in the smoke, it might be possible to pick out the answers we were so desperate for.
What did it mean? Would it happen again? Would there be a war? Could we stop it?
What would happen next?
But now, as you read this, you have what not even the most powerful men on the planet had at the time: you know what happened next.
Perhaps you remember how that suspense felt then. You know how it still feels now:
Who gets to survive this? What can we do? Is it even worth trying?
When the books are written, the answers will be known. If the characters try to grab hold of any of history’s levers and pull, readers will know in advance if they succeed or fail. Exceptional writers can narrow this distance from historical figures – Hilary Mantel almost makes me forget that I already know the fate of Anne Boleyn, almost convinces me that this time things might be different.
Or you can use the distance to ramp up the suspense. Characters can run around shouting “this ship is unsinkable!”
But the fact that the past is now unchangeable makes it easy to forget that it was never inevitable. Things could always have been different. History, as it is lived, always can be different.
Two years after that last afternoon in Spain, I started writing the Romanitas trilogy.
Later still, when people asked why I wrote alternate history, I said, “Because it’s more like history than history.”
I didn’t mean to write a novel then. I was a poet. The thing about poems? They’re short. I was twenty-three and confident to the point of cocky, but I still knew I was nowhere near ready to write novels.
I assumed that in a few years, I’d write literary fiction. That was what I’d studied. That was the obvious next step. I overlooked the fact that I spent at least as much time saturating in Philip Pullman and Star Wars and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as I did contemplating Sylvia Plath.
But one afternoon, I found myself daydreaming about the big epic fantasy trilogy I’d like to write – you know, for fun! – after the serious, proper books that would somehow materialise first.
A cast of thousands. Supernatural stuff. Characters who still had the chance to change a world whose history wasn’t known yet. Oh, and I always loved stories about people on the run!
And yet … would these books have to be set in a “magical world”? Wasn’t there a way to write epic fantasy, or at any rate something like epic fantasy, in this one?
And what would people be running away from?
Well, the Roman Empire was epic and scary and suffused with the supernatural. And it was a world I knew pretty well. I’d read their letters and poems and histories. I knew something about how they thought.
But everyone would already know what happened. There would be such immovable limits to what could happen. As if it had always been inevitable.
Unless … it was an alternative world. Recognisable, but different. A Roman Empire that hadn’t fallen. A modern Roman Empire.
Obviously I wasn’t going to write this novel yet, but immediately a lot of it arrived in my head.
Rome would be huge and inescapable and sometimes as seductive as it was horrific.
Romans with cars. And television. But also guns. And an arms race between Rome and … maybe Japan? And a wall across North America. And also slavery.
That’s what the characters would be running away from! A teenage brother and sister, and she’d save him from being crucified … and she’d hate Rome with everything she was – but could she ever really outrun it?
At the other end of the scale, there’d be the heir to the imperial throne … soaking in privilege, but in danger too. There’d be people willing to kill to prevent the changes he’d make to the Empire …
Well, I thought, that all sounded cool. But yikes! Definitely too demanding for a first novel! Maybe in ten years’ time, I’d be ready to have a crack at it.
Twenty minutes later I thought, “Oh well, I’ll just start.”
It’s only now – seventeen years since I started writing Romanitas and eleven years since I finished it – that the trilogy is finally reaching the US and Canada. Revisiting them now is strange – after all this time, you might think I’d be able to encounter them almost as a new reader myself, without knowledge what happens next. But I can’t. I remember everything. The parts I’d do differently now, the parts that feel more relevant than I’d like (that fucking wall isn’t the half of it) and the parts I lived so intensely that it feels as though I never really stopped writing them. For so long, they were the centre of my life, and they continue to shape so much of it. I definitely didn’t see that coming.
Both the lion and the unicorn look shocked that the gull has invaded their tableau. The gull, obviously, could not care less what they think.
(From the Customs House here in Dublin)
In fantasy worlds, we’re used to the idea of “secondary worlds” — worlds not unlike our own, branched off in specific ways — and in Shrouded Loyalties, author Reese Hogan branches off from an unusual place indeed.
To try to figure out the big idea behind Shrouded Loyalties—and the wording here is something I had to constantly remind myself of as I thought about this blog post; not all the big ideas coming together, but the big idea that started it all—I’d have to boil the book down to the very first elements that were present, before it blossomed and grew into something beyond what I imagined.
Only three things from my very first draft survived until the final book: 1) the setting—I always knew I wanted a World War II-inspired secondary world; 2) people being hunted for magic tattoos—these grew into the marks two of my characters receive in the second chapter; and 3) the idea of a soldier returning home from war to discover that her little brother is an enemy collaborator.
It was this last idea that really defined how the book grew. Originally, Blackwood was a soldier in the army, rather than a sailor on a submarine, but I needed her to be farther from home to give her brother, Andrew, the space to distance himself from her emotionally. I needed to give the enemy a reason to want Andrew on their side, so his and Blackwood’s parents became scientists who’d left valuable research behind after dying in a freak accident. I needed to give Blackwood a secret big enough that the enemy getting ahold of it could mean the downfall of her own country, and I needed to give Andrew the motivation and means to take that secret and give it to the very people she hated.
Finally, from a draft of the book that only shared Blackwood’s side of the story, I gave Andrew a point of view, so the reader could understand why he makes the decisions he does—and maybe even sympathize with those decisions. So, before I ever had a pair of spies targeting the Blackwood siblings or an alternate world filled with monsters, I had Blackwood and her brother, two very very different people who could barely hold a conversation, pitted against one another in the most personal way possible.
The result brought me into territory I hadn’t expected, in terms of grief and depression and self-loathing, and I found myself growing increasingly convinced that this was the story my heart had been leading me to all along—the temptations that can seduce us in our darkest hours, and the powerful toll mental health issues can have on relationships and communication. I am no stranger to these feelings, but I don’t often see them explored in the SFF genre, and I realized as I wrote Blackwood and Andrew’s relationship that this was my chance to make these issues accessible in a new way. That’s why Shrouded Loyalties, a novel about alternate realms and spies and monsters, is at its heart a story of two people who never learned to communicate.
But I didn’t know any of this when I started writing it. In the beginning, my big idea was as simple as a teenage brother lured to the wrong side of the tracks, and the guilt of the big sister who knew deep down that she should have been there to protect him. I didn’t know if the relationship would be fixable. I didn’t know how far Andrew would go in his collaboration. All I knew was that there’s nothing more devastating than a sibling relationship gone this badly wrong, and that it was something I was dying to explore.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
(Actually it’s just the entrance to the tasting rooms at the Guinness Storehouse tour, but it looks pretty sinister, no?)
I had a big idea. I was going to write about the murder of Shira Banki in Pride in Jerusalem in 2015, and how it affected writing The Heart of the Circle. It was supposed to be a very inspirational post, about what I think being an ally means, why literature is important and how it can change people’s point of view, with a call for action at the end. It would have worked lovely with the book’s main theme about social awareness, joining forces against extremists and highlighting marginalized population. But my country is in flames as I’m writing this, and that post is as far away from me as possible.
Selomon Teka, an 18 year old boy was killed a few days ago. The cause for his death changes according to whom you prefer to listen to. Either he was a trouble-maker who started a fight and threatened a police officer who tried to calm spirits, and got shot because of it, or he was innocent, just had a fight with his friend, and the police officer meddled for no reason, shooting him point-blank, killing him.
The only things that remains constant in both the police’s version and the family and friends’ version is that he is dead. And that the boy was Ethiopian. Which means his skin was dark.
When I write, I do so to deal with the real-world, when reality becomes too unbearable for me. I put all of my confusion and pain into my writing, and things feel better after that. I wrote about prostitution when I started working in a free STD clinic in south Tel Aviv and got to know the sex workers that came to me. I wrote about trying to cheat death after a close friend died suddenly. I started writing about LGBTQ rights after that same friend, a few years earlier, explained to me what it means to be gay in our so-called free country.
We talked a lot, and from those conversations Reed and Lee were born. The world in which my characters lived was way better in the first draft, but then Shira Banki was murdered in 2015, and I realized what my story was really about. The Big Idea behind The Heart of The Circle isn’t that big – it is simply the notion that we should treat people with respect.
Now, you see, that’s what I was going to write about. But the world clearly had different plans. Selomon Teka’s death started demonstrations all over Israel, and some of them were violent. People were blocking roads, throwing rocks, fighting with police officers, and burning tires. When I say my country is in flames, I mean it in the most literal way.
The stories that surfaced since Selomon Teka’s murder exposed an ugly, brutal, segregated Israel, which I thought had disappeared into the eighties, after huge waves of immigration from Ethiopia. People are now speaking of police harassment, unjustified body searches and arrests, and I don’t know what to do. I have no words. Because what can I say? “Don’t judge a person by the color of their skin”? From what I’m seeing on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, not everyone agrees with that idea, one which I didn’t think was that ‘big’ in the first place.
Shira Banki shouldn’t have died. Selomon Teka shouldn’t have died. I’m not naïve. I’m a doctor and I know people die; I know our world is unjust. But I still don’t understand why an 18 year old boy is dead because of his skin color, and why a 16 year old girl is dead because she marched for equal rights.
People die in my country every day. We have many problems here and a lot of injustice. And in weeks like the last one we just had, I continue to wish more people understood those most basic human concepts: respect, acceptance, kindness.
Maybe it is a big idea after all.
It’s lovely so far. There are flowers everywhere. We’ve seen the Book of Kells and Christchurch Cathedral and had dinner with friends and been to pubs. It’s a whole thing and we’re here for it. Hope your week is going well, too. More updates when I can remember to do them.
No matter what, there are always lawyers. But what happens when there lawyers… but not much law? It’s an idea — dare we say, a big idea — that Christopher Brown considers in his novel, Rule of Capture.
Who are the lawyers you call when you get in trouble in dystopia?
This question came to me one hot summer day several years ago when I was working on my last novel, Tropic of Kansas. I was diligently slogging my way through the middle of the book—you know, the part where you get totally stuck in the weeds, lost without a compass, tearing your hair out and nothing to help you except for every book you’ve ever read and all the things the world around you has to teach if you open your eyes. The characters I was writing that day were a pair of young fugitives, on the run through the ecologically devastated heartland of an authoritarian mirror America, chased by Carhartt militias and autonomous drones. And then one of them got sick, and had to turn himself in. What do you do when your buddy gets locked up in a dystopian prison camp? Especially when you’ve already had one jail break, which is all any single novel can handle.
I took my own break, ran an errand, and then stopped for a coffee by the side of the highway. As I walked back to the car, I noticed the giant billboard looming over me with the image of a larger than life dude sporting leather jacket and tie, wild long hair, a cunning smile, and a very Austin tagline: THE LAWYER WHO ROCKS.
And I immediately thought, what kind of cases would that kind of lawyer handle in my dystopian USA? Being one myself, I know lawyers can make a living helping navigate any legal system you throw at them. And even in the most repressive societies, the ones that lock people up and disappear them without due process, there are lawyers who fight to extract some kernel of justice—and extract some fees along the way.
By the end of the day, there was a billboard inside my novel. Donny Kimoe, “the lawyer even the law is afraid of.” And conveniently for my cell phone-avoiding character, there was a pay phone nearby, and a last quarter in his pocket.
Donny’s onstage scenes got cut, but his billboard survived. And after I finished Tropic of Kansas, I kept thinking about the character, and about that idea, of the lawyers of dystopia. And the more I thought about it, the more potential I saw. Science fiction is full of laws, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to the Prime Directive, but almost entirely devoid of lawyers. In contrast, most legal thrillers are not actually about the law, but just the facts—figuring out who committed the crime and meting out punishment. If you set a legal thriller in a science fiction, the “literature of ideas,” you could have the best of both worlds—a gripping courtroom drama whose outcome rides not just on the lawyer proving the facts, but on the lawyer figuring out how to work an unjust system.
I pitched the idea to my editor—“think Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four”—and he liked it so much he wanted two.
Rule of Capture, out today from Harper Voyager, is the result. The story of Donny Kimoe, a burned out trial lawyer defending political dissidents hauled in front of the special emergency court of an America drifting into totalitarianism. Busy trying to save one client from the death penalty after he’s framed for aiding an attack on the President, Donny gets assigned the unwinnable case of Xelina Rocafuerte, a young journalist and eco-activist who witnessed the assassination of a grassroots political leader and is being prosecuted as a terrorist to silence her. To get her off, Donny has to extract justice from a system in which due process has been suspended. That means breaking the rules, and risking the same fate as his clients.
Donny practices law in a world where the clients are mostly guilty. It’s the laws they violate that are unjust. In otherwords, it’s a lot like the real world, but uses the tools of dystopian fiction to tell truths more conventionally realist legal thrillers cannot. Crafting an imaginary legal system is as challenging a form of worldbuilding as it sounds. But to get started, I didn’t have to go much farther than the nearest law library, where, it turns out, you can find real-world precedents for just about any dystopian legal premise you can imagine—usually codified in laws that are still on the books.
I found an entire section of dusty how-to books on the administration of military rule over the civilian population, mostly from the time before World War Two when martial law was frequently invoked to suppress labor struggles. The suspension of habeas corpus so popular in the South American dictatorships of the 1970s is a power the founders wrote right into our Constitution—one Lincoln invoked during the Civil War. And for my Kafkaesque emergency court, I drew from the trial transcripts of the tribunals still going on at Guantánamo Bay. To paraphrase the Gomi-no-Sensei, the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Once the research was done, I learned that writing lawyer stories is harder than it looks from the outside. Behind the often clichéd courtroom scenes (“Objection!”) and procedural narrative structure, they require you to tell your story in a very different way—the way evidence is presented to a court, which is very different than the usual “show, don’t tell.” Lawyers are a peculiar species of trickster, and they don’t allow too much interiority for fear of giving up their sneaky strategy. But once you figure these rules out, the format reveals tremendous promise. Especially when you mix it up with the things you’ve learned from turning the world upside down in science fiction.
Done right, it might even help prevent us from needing lawyers like Donny in real life.
No car parks (as they call them here), but a lovely view of the River Liffey. Oh, also, we have a balcony.
We’re in a few days before the Worldcon starts. Ironically, this weekend at the Dublin convention center there’s a comic con, so it already feels vaguely familiar around here.
I’m gonna take a nap now.
Here’s your last look of Ohio (at least from me) for a week, because we’re off to Ireland for the Worldcon in Dublin. We have a whole day of airports ahead of us. Think kind thoughts for our travel, if you would.
I’m in Dublin all next week, so this week you get a super-sized edition of the new books and ARCs stack. It’s a very fine one, too. Which of these are calling to you? Tell us all in the comments!
A nice combination of clouds and orange, I have to say.
“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”
Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.
Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.
The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.
The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.
And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.
Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.
Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.
Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.
The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.
I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.
The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.
My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.
Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.
So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.
Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?
Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?
And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?
This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!
Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”
Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.
Athena finalized her next semester’s class schedule today, and one of her classes is on digital photography. This got me talking about how the camera and the eye don’t really see the same thing at all, and then taking pictures of her with my 28mm – 300mm lens at different focal lengths so she could see how much it changed the apparent shape of her face (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look). Then we also talked about how I used photo software to work with pictures after I took them, and how what you do in Photoshop (and other programs and plugins) can change the photo.
The photo above, for example, was shot with a 28mm focal length, then tweaked in software to fix facial distortion, lighting and skin tone evenness, and then turned monochromatic, with grain and a border added. The idea was not to turn the photo into some obvious and unrealistic Facetune slider-fest (although sometimes that’s fun to do), but to at least initially bring what comes out of the camera closer to what the human eye sees, and then find a visual presentation that compliments the subject. Mind you, this is what photographers have done pretty much since the advent of photography; the only difference is that digital tools make it quicker and easier (and cheaper!) to do, without the need to devote space in one’s home for a darkroom and its attendant poisonous chemicals.
I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people that when I post pictures of Athena and Krissy, I run them through Photoshop to clean them up and to make them more visually interesting. I am occasionally asked whether either my daughter or wife ever take a bad photo; the answer is yes, of course, it’s just I never show you any of those. I show you my bad photos. That should be enough for anyone. Anyway, I’ve from time to time had people tell me that they thought I probably prettied up pictures of Krissy but then they met her in real life and realized that no, she actually does look like that, which I find gratifying. As I noted before, I want the pictures I take to accurately reflect life.
It was fun to talk photography with Athena because it’s a hobby of mine, and it’s fun to explain your hobby to others, and also because Athena is already a pretty decent photographer herself, so talking about something she already has an eye for I think will make her eye even better in the long run. I suspect she’ll do just fine in her class this next semester.