The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell

Did you know? Today is the official Ohio is Coming to Kick Your Ass With Science Fiction Day. Why, you ask? Because in addition to some other Ohio-based dude having a book out today, today is the release date of Sly Mongoose, the third in a series of action-packed kick-ass novels by none other than Tobias Buckell. With Mongoose, Publishers Weekly has declared that Buckell has delivered a “story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster,” but the Nebula Award nomination that Buckell racked up for Ragamuffin, the previous book in the series, will hint to you that there’s more going on in these books than just shoot-em-up mayhem. It’s Buckell’s combination of smarts and action that got him tapped to write the next book in the Halo sequence, called Halo: The Cole Protocol.

That’s in the future, however. Here in the present, Buckell’s here to tell you how a talk by another Ohio-based science fiction writer helped get his mind in the right place (and planet) for Sly Mongoose. Take it away, Toby!


So, usually people ask you ‘where do you get your ideas?’ when they find out you write novels. I understand the impulse behind that question, but it’s usually not easy to answer in a sentence realistically. For my first two novels it involved a blended stew of things that I’d been obsessing over for a few years, that I was trying to get to work together. And after a bit, answering the question in regards to a particular book becomes frustrating.

But in this case, the genesis for Sly Mongoose has a very specific incident. I was at a convention in Pennsylvania where NASA scientist and award-winning author Geoffrey Landis was a guest. For those of you who don’t know Geoff, he’s an honest-to-goodness rocket-scientist type (although he doesn’t *actually* work on the rockets, but you know what I mean: he’s damn smart and works for NASA. He builds things that end up bolted to Mars rovers and stuff like that).

Now, Geoff gives amazing presentations about what we know about Mars and what NASA is planning for Mars. If you ever get a chance to sit in on one, you’ll get yourself learned up a bit, so I’m always game if my schedule is willing to slip in and listen to one of his presentations every year or so. That way I can run around repeating the information and getting to keep my ‘science fiction author’ ID card for another year.

So I’m there at this presentation right about as I’m finishing up my second novel, and at the end of getting the Red Planet downloaded into my cortex, Geoff comes over to my chair and says “Toby, you should stick around, I’m doing a presentation on Venus, and I think you’ll get a kick out of it.”

I’m so glad I listened.

The next presentation starts off with Geoff giving us the rundown on Venus and what planned missions to Venus are going to look like, or may look like if they’re approved. Then he suddenly reminds us all about Venus’s basic properties. It’s hot. Crazy hot. The pressure is off the chain. It rains frickin’ sulfuric acid! There’s no air.

Then Geoff says, all that aside, Venus is probably the second most habitable planet in the solar system.

Say what? I’m intrigued, as Geoff goes on to explain that if you go high enough up into Venus’s atmosphere, the pressure is standard, the heat normal, you’re above the sulfuric acid-raining clouds, and then tells us that there, normal breathable Earth air is a lifting gas. So if you were to, say, enclose a mile-wide structure in a bubble, and fill that with normal breathable air, it would float.

In other words, you get a scientific justification for Cloud City. As long as it’s a giant floating marble.

Within a minute of Geoff saying this, I had written out an outline for a Venusian world called Chilo, where cities float, blimps get you everywhere, and I could freely mix the tropes of airship battles, deep sea mining adventure, submarine battles, zombies, and space opera in one big explosive adventure.

After the presentation I approached Geoff and asked what his plans were for floating Venusian cities, as I was totally geeked out. He’d just blown my brain. Geoff responded by saying he had no plans for it, he even had a CD’s worth of data and sketches and calculations he could give me. I was off to the races.

And that is why, at the beginning of Sly Mongoose, the book says ‘For Geoff: thanks for Chilo.”

Seriously, Geoff: thanks.

Sly Mongoose: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Visit Tobias Buckell’s personal site here. Read an excerpt from the first chapter (and see a video trailer) here.

21 Comments on “The Big Idea: Tobias Buckell”

  1. What I loved about this book is (Rot-13 for spoilers)

    gur znva onqnff “tbbq thl” vf pevccyrq ol snyyvat bhg bs beovg(!) naq fgvyy pbagvahrf gb or whfg nf onqnff naq fpnel gb gur onq thlf.

    Qba’g shpx jvgu Crccre. Feyfl.

    Also, zombies! Woo!

  2. “there’s more going on in these books than just shoot-em-up mayhem”

    That may be true. But if a movie is made, you can bet there will be nothing going on but shoot-em-up mayhem, and possibly a side plot involving saving a child or a girlfriend from the emeny.

  3. So what’s with the giant guns on that cover? It makes sense that infantry units with power-assisted armor would carry something bigger and more destructive than a modern infantry rifle, but for some reason even ordinary soldiers in SF tend to carry oversized weaponry. Compare, say, the pulse rifles in Aliens and the blasters in Star Wars with a modern M-16.

  4. “Geoff responded by saying he had no plans for it, he even had a CD’s worth of data and sketches and calculations he could give me.”

    What? The word “even” confuses me here – I feel like either “no” should be “some”, or “even” should be “just”. Was there a typo?

  5. Say what? I’m intrigued, as Geoff goes on to explain….

    Whoah, that’s a mighty big idea, right there. And this Landis guy just handed it over like a napkin? That’s a mighty big and impressive brain he has.

    I mean Greg Egan’s big idea for Incandesence was pretty damn big too, but this one is close enough everyday life to not give you that ‘trying to swallow an idea bigger than your head’ feeling without being any less impressive.

    Based on my reading of Ragamuffin I am definitely going to get a copy of Sly Mongoose.

  6. Awesome, I just ordered Zoe’s Tale, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose from Amazon this morning (along with Little Brother and The Mirrored Heavens).

    I love the Big Idea stuff because half the time I order the book(s) it’s talking about on the spot.

  7. I hate the Big Idea stuff. It keeps adding authors to my “to be read” stack. When I’m found dead under a pile of books that I haven’t been able to read yet, you’ll know who’s to blame!

  8. Just finished Ragamuffin. Can’t wait for Sly Mongoose

    Hmmm, it just ocurred to me that the official Ohio is Coming to Kick Your Ass With Science Fiction Day and other modern Sci Fi kickassery may actually be an anabaptist conspiracy.

    Karl Schroeder who also writes about floating cities comes from a Mennonite background. Buckell and Scalzi both live in Ohio (!) and Buckell graduated from Bluffton.

    Seriously, guys, how much are the plain folk paying you to encourage everyone else to move off planet.

  9. What? The word “even” confuses me here – I feel like either “no” should be “some”, or “even” should be “just”. Was there a typo?

    I read it as “He didn’t plan to write a book or anything about it, so I was free to run with the idea myself. He even had a CD of data he was willing to give me to work with for my plan.”

  10. Oh! I had read “plan” in the “blueprint” sense, not the “intention” sense, so I read it as “he didn’t have any details about how to put together a floating city, and he even had a bunch of details about how to put together a floating city.” Your reading makes much more sense – thanks.

  11. My back-catalogue of “Stuff I Can’t Live Without Reading” grows.

    There oughter be a law against professional writers writing advertisements. There just oughter. It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. You with your words making things sound all…. wanty.

    Stupid words.

  12. I heard Landis talk about this at Noreascon in 2004 and loved the idea, too. Of course the only thing I did with it was to suggest it to a friend’s daughter as a school project. The teacher wanted them to design a habitat for living on Venus and make a diorama of it. She asked me and I pointed her in the direction of a cloud habitat, so she dodged all of the teachable lessons in the project. She was supposed to show that she understood about the heat and pressure and acid and show how to overcome those problems. I think she still got a good grade on the project. And I hope you get a good grade on Sly Mongoose.

  13. Ooo, a new novel in the Crystal Rain universe! I read CR ages ago, mostly forgot about it, and just re-read it and learned about Ragamuffin, the sequel.

    Now there’s another sequel – excellent!

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