The Big Idea: Jay Lake
Normally I write a bit about each of the Big Idea authors, but here’s all you need to know about Jay Lake, one of my fave people in science fiction/fantasy and a Hugo co-nominee with me for METAtropolis: He’s awesome. His new book Green? Also awesome. His Big Idea piece? Totally completes the awesome trifecta. I’ll get out of the way of all this awesome now, so you can experience it for yourself.
Mainspring came out in June of 2007. Escapement followed a year later. I knew there’d be at least one more book in the clockwork cycle, and maybe more than that. But in discussions during the winter of 2007 and spring of 2008 (books take a long time), my editor Beth Meacham said, “Unless you want to be the Clockwork Guy for the rest of your life, you might want to take a break and try something different.”
She had a point. On the one hand, being the Clockwork Guy wasn’t the worst idea I’d ever heard. On the other hand, my short story career has practically been the definition of eclectic, as I’ve played with styles ranging from straight Robert E. Howard pastiche to high interstitial weirdness. And pretty much everything in between you care to name, with the possible exception of nurse romances. (And there’s even a romantic interest with a nurse in my short story “Jack’s House.”)
This argued for another direction. As it happens, I flick ideas off myself the way a fourth grader flicks boogers. Never been much of a shortage in that department. But a novel had been tugging at me for a couple of years, based on my short story “Green”, which originally ran in Aeon magazine’s fifth issue. I liked the original story a lot, and had written several spinoffs, including “A Water Matter” which ran at Tor.com, ”People of Leaf and Branch” which is running this June at Fantasy, and “The Daughters of Desire” forthcoming in Blood and Devotion. Obviously this setting had been running around in my brain for a while.
More to the point, I’d been wrestling at the time with some serious issues in my own craft around writing female protagonists who felt genuinely female, and not like me in a dress, as it were. The notion of tackling a substantial piece of fantasy from a single-threaded tight first person POV sounded like an incredible way to expand my writerly horizons.
Thus, Green was born.
She’s almost an anti-hero, at least to my way of thinking, and unreliable as a narrator in some subtle ways, because though she’s very inwardly focused, Green isn’t particularly self-aware. She’s an angry, violent young woman who doesn’t see those things in the mirror, and so never really understands why people react the way they do to her. Given the roles into which she is thrust, her forceful nature is the only thing which does ensure her survival, but that makes her trip a hell of a ride.
The story begins with her being sold by her father at the age of three. Her mother is dead, they are the poorest of peasants in a destitute tropical country. Green is taken across the sea to Copper Downs for the sake of her beauty and raised among pale-skinned, pale-eyed strangers for whom she is a thing, most literally – a product to be formed and shaped and tailored into a fit wife or courtesan for the nobles of the Stone Coast.
Her training is suborned by a careful plot against the immortal duke ruling the city. Green’s own fractious spirit and this undermining of her training combine to make her a dangerous rebel, and rebel she does – both against her trainers and against her conspirators. From that unfolds a tale of claim and counterclaim, gods and ghosts, politics, sex and the place of women in the world.
All of this centers on a big idea that is also very small.
The big idea in Green is the notion of agency. That’s at the heart of many of fiction’s epic struggles, but Green takes her fierce sense of individuality to the ragged edge and beyond. Would you kill to be who you think you ought to be? How badly would you need something to be willing to die for it? The book’s tight internal narrative lets me get close to some very hard choices – grand versions of the choices we all make every day, in incremental steps and small doses.
Tor took this book and gave it one of the prettiest covers I’ve ever seen. Striking, yet also strange and violent like Green herself. I’ve already outlined a sequel, Endurance, which will be written later this year for a likely 2011 publication. She’ll be back, tough as ever. Get to know her now.