The creature with Zoë, in case you’re wondering, would be an Obin (although whether Hickory or Dickory I am unsure. There’s the second Obin visible in the corner; it’s a wrap-around illustration). This is actually the second version of the Obin I’ve seen recently, the other coming from Vincent Chong, in the upcoming Subterranean Press signed, limited edition of The Last Colony. Both versions are exceedingly cool, and I like that there are variations in their imagining of the species. Also, should Tor ever do a version of ZT specifically intended for the YA market, they could do worse than to use this cover as a reference point. This is a lovely illustration.
A quick moment to plug some stuff worth plugging:
As much as I like the title of this feature here, not all books originally spring from a big idea. Just ask Edward Willett, whose latest book, Terra Insegura, is part of a series that sprang originally from a quick and dirty writing exercise. But from that humble beginning, Willett’s done well: Marseguro, the first book in the series, has been nominated this year for a Prix Aurora Award, one of Canada’s highest science fiction honors. You can’t complain about that.
So how does a small, quick idea become a big idea — and a big deal? Willett is here to tell you how it’s done.
I feel a bit like I’m cheating, writing a Big Idea essay about Terra Insegura, because you could say it and its prequel, Marseguro, sprang from next to no idea at all.
In September of 2005 I took Robert J. Sawyer’s course in writing science fiction at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta, part of the Writing With Style program there.
One morning the first thing Rob asked us to do was write, cold, in five minutes, the opening to a story. I wrote: “Emily streaked through the phosphorescent sea, her wake a comet-tail of pale green light, her close-cropped turquoise hair surrounded by a glowing pink aurora. The water racing through her gill-slits smelled of blood.”
That week I tried to turn that into a short story, but as I followed my usual story-building procedure of self-interrogation—“Why does Emily have gills? Why is there blood in the water? What is she fleeing?” I kept coming up with answers I couldn’t cram into a short story: in other words, I’d gone from a teeny-tiny idea to, yes, Big Ideas. And when the time came to propose a new book to DAW after Lost in Translation, those ideas begat Marseguro, which in turn begat Terra Insegura.
Emily, I realized, has gills because she is a human who has been genetically modified to be amphibian, able to breathe in both air and water. (It was either that or make her an alien, and who would name an alien Emily?) Besides, genetic modification was on my mind because I’d just taught myself more than I’d ever before known about genetics by writing Genetics Demystified for McGraw-Hill.
But this isn’t a hard SF novel, so my focus wasn’t on how these modified humans—nicknamed Selkies, after the seal-people of Irish legend–were created. My concern lay more with questions of human nature, not only that SFnal oldie-but-goodie “what does it mean to be human?”, but even more with the question of how, once some humans have been extravagantly modified genetically, non-modified humans will react to, and interact with, them.
On the hidden water world of Marseguro (which means “safe sea” in Portugese, and thank you, Google Translator, for giving me my title), they relate pretty well. But it’s a lingering resentment of moddies that causes one non-modded human to blow the whistle on the Selkies’ hiding place and bring the bad guys from Earth running—the bad guys who were the answer to the other questions I asked about my original story-opener, “What is she fleeing?” and “Why is there blood in the water?”
Religion and I go way back. I grew up in the Church of Christ, which some would call a fundamentalist Christian church (though I and my late father, a preacher and elder, would both argue with that, since the Restoration Movement that gave rise to the Church of Christ was part of the intellect-focused Enlightenment rather than the emotional revivalism of the late 19th century).
Anyway, with my background, there was no way I was going to take the standard SF route of making evangelical Christians the bad guys. The finest people I have ever known, bar none, have been Christians of the sort that are all-too-often stereotyped (by those who don’t know any better) as bigoted haters.
On the other hand, I really needed some bigoted haters…
So I did what there is also a long history in science fiction circles of doing, and created my own religion (though it’s unlikely to take off in the real world and become a favorite of Hollywood), The Body Purified…a religion which is exemplifies one of the less-positive ways modified and non-modified humans might someday interact.
The Body Purified sees the genetic modification of humans as an abomination, a desecration of the “holy human genome.” (They don’t like clones, either.) But it wasn’t enough just to come up with The Body Purified and its nasty God (an impersonal “It” that’s really into that whole fire-and-sword thing). I had to explain how it managed to take power.
Many religions rest on a founding miracle: for Christianity it’s the resurrection of Jesus. For The Body Purified, the founding miracle is an astronomically unlikely event: one asteroid smacking another out of its Earth-destroying trajectory at the last possible moment. Since The Body Purified had been busily extermin—um, “purifying”—genetically modified humans on Earth while telling the panicked population that this was the only way to convince God Itself to turn Its wrath away, this miraculous rescue convinced all but the most recalcitrant believers in other religions that The Avatar, the Body’s leader, had a direct pipeline to God.
By the time of Marseguro, The Body Purified has been in power for decades, is trying to export its purification policies to the handful of human colonies scattered among the stars, and would really, really like to find out where genius geneticist Victor Hansen fled to in a stolen spaceship with his abominable race of Selkies. Thanks to the aforementioned disgruntled non-mod on Marseguro and Victor Hansen’s “grandson” Richard on Earth (who is the story’s main protagonist along with Emily, the Selkie girl), the Body Purified’s Holy Warriors descend on Marseguro with guns blazing.
But you really shouldn’t underestimate the defensive capabilities of a society built on high-level genetic engineering. The Purification of Marseguro goes badly, Richard Hansen finds out he’s not who he thinks he is (rather, what he thinks he is changes—and he changes with it), and at the end it seems likely that rather than Earth purifying Marseguro of Selkies, Marseguro may have inadvertently purified Earth of unmodified humans.
And that gives us Terra Insegura (meaning unsafe Earth), as a mixed crew of Selkies and nonmods, led by Richard Hansen, head to the home world to see what assistance they can render.
So: a quarter of a million words of fiction, containing at least a couple of reasonably large ideas, all sprung from a single writing exercise involving very little thought at all.
In a way, that’s its own kind of miracle.
2-3pm: Dublin Branch Library, Dublin OH — I’ll be doing an author appearance here. Most likely I’ll be reading from Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded and from METAtropolis, seeing as they are Hugo nominees. I might also read from Zoe’s Tale, but I have to tell you, it’s weird to hear me as a 39-year-old man attempt the tones of a sixteen-year-old girl. I’ll also be doing some Q&A and signing books if anyone brings them. If you’re free on Friday afternoon, this is a good time to catch up and say hello.
11:30am – 12:15am: I’ll be doing another reading and/or Q&A session. So if you love to hear me blather on, this will be the place to be.
2-2:45pm: I’ll be on a panel with fellow author Ann Hagedorn entitled Why We Write, What We Write, the content of which is described thusly: “A behind-the-scenes look at the whys and whats of creating fiction and non-fiction with two more of our featured authors – a journalist/historian and a science fiction author.” Guess which one I am!
3:45 – 4:30pm: Book signing. There are 60+ authors who will be happy to scrawl their names on a book (hopefully their book). I assume I will be here, too. And of course if you see me elsewhere at the festival and I am not otherwise engaged, I’ll be happy to sign a book for you.
Here’s the complete Book Festival schedule, in case you are interested in all the other stuff that’s going on that doesn’t include me. Which you should be, because it looks like an interesting line-up.
Remember that the Ohioana Book Festival is free to attend, so bring your whole family. Heck, bring the whole neighborhood. Better get a bus, though, if you do that.
Strange how it happens every year on the Fifth of May.
Here’s some vaguely appropriately-themed music for you, from my wife’s favorite band:
I’m still catching up from the weekend, so if you sent me mail any time in the last four days and I haven’t responded yet, I probably will sometime today.
Update, 10am: I’m caught up now. If you’ve been expecting a response and didn’t get one, go ahead and e-mail again.