How do a graduate student’s observations of fish in a laboratory wind up fueling not one but two science fiction series? Well, first, it helps to have that graduate student be Julie Czerneda, who would become the Prix Aurora-winning author of In the Company of Others (also a Nebula Award nominee), and whose latest novel, Riders of the Storm, is most recent installment of the “Clan Chronicles,” which encompasses a pair of separate yet interconnected trilogies. From fish to science fiction, here’s Czerneda to explain how you get from the one to the other.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — read by moonlight. Her parents had the silly notion that lights should be turned off by 1 am. Alas, she was never completely satisfied by what she read. Stories seemed to stop short. They failed, in her opinion, to go over the next hill. To dare more …
Thank goodness she discovered science fiction. And the value of a flashlight.
Once upon a somewhat later time, there was a grad student who would — diurnal cycles being what they are — observe fish (fathead minnows) in a damp dark basement at 1 am. The fish had the silly notion it was a spring morning (because of clever tank lighting and temperature) and performed extraordinary, life-threatening feats in the name of sex. Alas, while being very careful to record her data faithfully, the student was never completely satisfied. Ideas seemed to stop short. Her hypotheses, and those in the literature, failed to dare more … .
I remember walking home at some ungodly hour — not that it mattered in January in northern Saskatchewan, it was dark from teatime to coffee break — my parka cracking in the cold, tears freezing my glasses to my face as usual, and thinking what I needed was science fiction.
You see, there are times when it isn’t enough to think outside a box, you need to blow it away. Science fiction is that to me. A potent blend of reasoned questioning and eye-popping wonder. Permission to take risks and make extrapolations. To grasp for ideas that are both incredible and essential, in hopes of better understanding, well, everything. Go over the hill. (I’m very impatient with things like hills.) See what’s there.
Which led to my first attempt to finish a piece of fiction, my first attempt to sell it, and my first sale: A Thousand Words for Stranger. But what really matters, of course, is the Big Idea and that basement of fish.
How powerful is sexual selection? As species evolve, mates choose sex partners based on whatever they see, hear, smell, touch, or taste that convinces them this one (or however many) will do better than all those others. Being a biologist, my use of the term “do better” is all about the success of the generation that results from that partnership. (Aside: I picked well. We have great kids. Although I can’t say I was thinking along those lines at the time.)
I could see in my tanks the cost in energy, risk, and survival male minnows paid to attract females. Or flipped around, the price expected by the females. Many would only breed once in a lifetime, if that. From all evidence, this extreme works for them.
What about us? How far could sexual selection go within a species that understood its own biology? Surely intelligence would curb extraordinary, risky behaviour. (I can hear you snickering, but I’m talking species here, not teens.)
Science fiction lets us create experiments unthinkable or impossible in the real world. I postulated a species where females had a specific way of identifying the ideal mate. A test, so to speak. You pass, you get to pass on your genes to the next generation. I assigned a cost to being attractive. More on that later.
First I leapt over the next hill and made up a wonderful future of aliens and interstellar travel and amazing things in which to play. I see no reason thought experiments can’t be fun.
Thus came the Clan into being: an alien species with extraordinary mental abilities (easier than antlers or rubbing pads) in which females test prospective mates in a contest where only a male as strong or stronger will be chosen, ie. succeed. To make things interesting, the more powerful members of this species have the ability to teleport, ie. move from place to place using another dimension. Handy thing, that. However, being intelligent, you’d expect they’d notice that encouraging more and more power in their females might increase this ability but also will one day seriously limit the number of suitable mates — especially if failure to be chosen means death.
So what would they do?
I set the experiment in motion with Sira, the main character of Thousand. She’s the Clan’s first female who is too powerful for any male to match, and the proof that their population is in serious trouble. Her attempt at a solution leads to all manner of adventure and trouble. I was happy with the story … so were readers. (Thank you!) There were two sequels, comprising the Trade Pact trilogy. By the second, though, I knew something important.
I knew — alas, or otherwise — that it wasn’t enough for me to write an adventure derived from the Big Idea. I had to poke at it. I wanted more. How could the Clan be as I portrayed? What could possibly solve their problem — if anything? Where could they fit in the predominantly human plus varied alien society I’d envisioned? What made it all work!? (Aside: Also, by this time I’d written enough not to be afraid of revealing the Big Ideas in my stories. Little did I realize …)
So was born what DAW and I now call The Clan Chronicles: Stratification, the Trade Pact trilogy, and Reunification.
Stratification is the prequel. Where the Clan came from, how they arrived in human space, why they are as I’ve shown them. It began with Reap the Wild Wind and continues in Riders of the Storm, released this week. Stratification has already proved to be the hardest, most challenging thing I’ve ever done. The completely new story and characters were fine — the difficulty lay in having to write match/explain/foretell what was already in print, namely in the Trade Pact books. I have notes, maps, journals. At times I felt as though I was doing grad studies again, this time in my own fictional world. A shame I’m not as easy to work with as minnows. Rift in the Sky will take the Clan to the Trade Pact. My last chance to get it all right. Wish me luck!
The best, however, is the groundwork for the finale to come. I can’t wait. Because when I write Reunification, I will go over the next hill. I already know what’s there. It’s nothing I imagined that dark Saskatchewan night. It’s stranger and far more wonderful and bigger than here or then. I’m not at all surprised.
You see, since I was a girl who read by moonlight, I knew that’s what science fiction was.
People are curious about the bacon-flavored jelly beans that made an appearance in this entry (they’re actually interested in the whole described event, actually, but I think some things are more amusing left unexplained), so here they are, naturally posed with Ghlaghghee, i.e., Bacon Cat, who as before looks somewhat less than impressed with the whole thing. The Bacon Beans were a gift from Phil Plait, i.e., The Bad Astronomer, who snuck up on me while I was doing a signing at Dragon*Con and presented me with them (photographic evidence of our meeting is available here). Sadly, except for this brief moment, I didn’t get to hang with Phil, but clearly the gift he gave added to the overall fun of Dragon*Con, as evidenced by their involvement in a conga line and/or with sweaty gay men. Really, who could ask for anything more.
Yes, yes, you say, we already know about the conga line and the sweaty gay men. But how do they taste? Well, assuming you mean the Bacon Beans and not the sweaty gay men (whom I did not sample, possibly to the disappointment and/or relief of many), I cracked open the tin and tried one just as I was writing this up. The verdict: Gaaaaaaaah. Bacon + jelly beans = JUST NOT RIGHT. Fortunately I had Coke Zero and strong minty gum nearby to wash the taste of flavor abomination out of my mouth. But for everyone else who might be tempted to try these things, there’s a reason things like this are known as “gag gifts.”
That said, I was and continue to be utterly delighted with the gift — it really is the thought that counts — so thanks, Phil.
I’m happy to say that up to this point, the concern in this following archived entry has not been realized.
JULY 15, 2003: Strippers With Swords
All right, I’m officially a science fiction writer (I’ve got the SFWA membership to prove it) so let me just say this: Please God, never let me have a book cover whose images would be equally at home airbrushed onto a van. This fervent prayer came to me while I was looking at this, a cover for the Science Fiction Book Club catalog I got in the mail (not the regular catalog but the one they send to get you to join).
In it, as you can see, strippers from the Kitty Kat bar unsheathe their weapons and do battle with orcs. We know these women are brilliant fighters because while the orcs are all compactly and heavily armored, our gals feel confident wearing flowing, flimsy robes which conveniently ventilate in the ass and breast regions. They are so good, in fact, that they don’t even bother looking at the enemy which they are slaughtering in its vile dozens; instead, their gaze is affixed upon you, as if to say, yes, it’s vitally important that we skewer these vile creatures in order to acquire the Orb of Thangulzon, thereby allowing the anointed King of The Many Globes to return to Gingdor Castle and once again rule all breeds justly and fairly. But what we really want to do is service each other while you watch and then jump your scrawny, pale 14-year-old bones. After all, that is the dream of all strippers-turned-fantasy heroines. They’re just pneumatic with desire.
This is not be read as a slam on Luis Royo, the artist who provided this bit of nonsense to the SFBC. Royo is a fine artist, if you go for this sort of thing; in the genre of “improbably clad people with weaponry,” he’s on the tier with Boris Vallejo. The fact SFBC, in its infinite wisdom, determined that this graphic would be just the thing to suck in new members indicates that someone somewhere thinks this sort of thing is popular, which means that it probably is. I know enough to know that when I was 14, I would have sensed this picture’s ridiculousness, yet at the same time I’d still want to have sex with the brunette one, so there you have it.
Be that as it may, I wouldn’t want this, or something thematically like it to grace the cover of one of my books. Neither I nor writers other than the most very successful have control of these sorts of things. We can make suggestions but the publishers sign off on the artwork, and you have to trust them, because it’s their job to know how to sell these books. But in my dream world, my cover artwork is clean, visually arresting, contextually appropriate, and devoid of random boobies and ass shots. SF/Fantasy is full of fanservice shots; let the geeks go elsewhere for that. Give me something I’m not going to be embarrassed to show to my mother-in-law.
That still leaves a lot of latitude — my mother-in-law is not a prude or anything. But it does leave out strippers with swords. I’m good with that.
Did this cinematic summer of dark knights and iron men and Chaplinesque droids teach us anything about the state of the industry? Sure it did. And I wrote about what those things might be in my AMC movie column this week. Go and bathe in summery wisdom (or, at least, me cranking out 800 words on the subject). And as always, when you want to tell me how very right I am — or how very very wrong — be sure to leave your thoughts in the comment thread.