My War (Or Not) With the “Big Three”

Got an e-mail today from someone who noticed an oblique reference to me in a recent Analog editorial which, in part, explained why the magazine still doesn’t accept e-mail submissions (I was referred to in it as a “young writer,” which as a middle-aged scribe with two decades of professional writing and publishing experience, I found to be as charming as it was inaccurate). The correspondent wanted to know if there was some sort of war going on between me and the “big three” science fiction magazines, in which I and the editors go after over each other with lead pipes and then laugh at whoever ends up on the ground, bleeding out.

In short: Nah. I have my disagreements with the editors of the “big three” on a couple of things here and there, most famously about their continued and persistent inability to join the 21st century and accept e-mail submissions, and on that particular subject I continue to be rather unimpressed with their arguments regarding why they don’t; the Analog editorial, for example, aside from poorly characterizing the discussion that went on here on the subject, was basically Stanley Schmidt taking the long way around to saying “because I don’t wanna.” That’s fine, and it’s his business, but it’s still not much of an argument, for reasons I’ve noted before.

That said, we’re all grown-ups here, and grown-ups can disagree from time to time. If you think on the basis of these disagreements that I have it in for the “big three,” you’re just silly. Differing opinions about the value of e-mail submissions and other such things aside, at the end of the day they’re pro markets in the genre, their editors are good people passionate about writing and about science fiction and fantasy, and on a month-in, month-out basis, they buy and publish fine work. What’s not to like about any of that? Far from wishing them ill, I want them to thrive and succeed.

When I’m griping about them, it’s not because I want to push them along into the dungheap of history, or because I’m some sort of grinning, loudmouthed fool who likes poking at wasp’s nests just to see what angry things fly out of them. It’s because I want them around, buying the stories of my fellow writers and generally contributing to the health and continuance of our genre, for all of our mutual benefit. “Young writer” cracks aside, after two decades in publishing, in both print and online media, I’m not wholly ignorant on this particular subject. I feel qualified to opine.

So, no: I’m not at war with the “big three,” and I very much doubt their editors feel they’re at war with me. I want them to do a few things differently, and clearly I’m not shy about saying so. They are equally clearly able to agree with me or not. But when all is said and done we all want the same thing: For the magazines to be doing their thing for a nice long time. If that’s a war, it’s a pretty strange one.

Big Idea

The Big Idea Index, 2009

And now, for your linking convenience, an index of every author who contributed a Big Idea essay this year, in alphabetical order, From Adams to Williamson. Catch up on what you missed, and keep these authors in mind when you’re cashing in your bookstore gift cards this week.

John Joseph Adams

C.L. Anderson

Julia Angwin

Paolo Bacigalupi

Steven R. Boyett

Sarah Rees Brennan

John Brown

Jeff Carlson

Harry Connolly

Megan Crewe

David Anthony Durham

Greg van Eekhout

Brian Evenson

C.C. Finlay

Jasper Fforde

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Daniel Fox

Laura Anne Gilman

Lev Grossman

Janice Hardy

Jim C. Hines

Charlie Huston

J.C. Hutchins

Kaza Kingsley

Mindy Klasky

Jay Lake

Tom Levenson

Malinda Lo

Paul Melko

China Miéville

James Morrow

Chad Orzel

Nicole Peeler

Diana Peterfreund

Sarah Prineas

Cherie Priest

Margaret Ronald

Diana Rowland

Carrie Ryan

Robert J. Sawyer

Seth Shostak

James Swallow

S. Andrew Swann

Catherynne Valente

Jeff VanderMeer

Carrie Vaughn

Scott Westerfeld

Edward Willett

Michael Z. Williamson

An excellent collection of authors, if I do say so myself.

Also, for any of you who are wondering when or if will ever see the light of day: Yes, we’re still working on spinning off the Big Idea to its own, fully-featured site. It’s just taking longer than we thought. In the meantime, of course, I’ll still be presenting The Big Idea here, as long as authors are still interested in participating. Indeed, after the new year (and when publicists are back at work), I’ll make a formal call for more of them.

But for now, please enjoy these.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Jasper Fforde

There are many reasons I like Jasper Fforde’s writing, but one of the main reasons I do is that Fforde has the rare talent of taking fundamentally farcical plot concepts (People enter books! Detectives solve crimes in a nursery rhyme world!) and paying them off in ways that are not, in fact, merely farcical. So while Fforde’s books are delightfully loopy and funny, they aren’t constructed in a knockabout, we’re-just-in-it-for-a-lark way. There’s a there there, isn’t there. And that’s harder than it looks.

Fforde’s at it again in Shades of Grey, a book which posits a future in which what you see, chromatically speaking, in a large part defines who you are. A wild idea — a big idea, even — but as you’ll see (although not necessarily chromatically), when Fforde sets to writing, the obvious consequences of such a world aren’t necessarily the first or biggest thing on his mind, when it to comes to constructing his story.


My Big Idea was not to use the Big Idea. Chuck it out, stuff it in the corner and relegate the obvious thread to the ignominy of subplot status. Then have the Small Idea advanced undeservedly to prominence. So my post-apocalyptic book has the nature of the ‘Something that Happened’ not only unanswered, but largely ignored. The remnants of the advanced technology that litter the landscape remain tantalisingly unexplored. All that remains of the Previous – mostly teeth, by now, complete with fillings – are simply trod underfoot. Anarchy is an alien concept; the world is ordered, neat, and static. The questions that dominate my character’s lives range from how they can marry into the Oxblood family’s String empire, the need to conduct a chair census, the visit to the Last Rabbit, the vexing question of where all the spoons went and, most important of all, how one can avoid the cold spectre of social embarrassment in a world obsessed with politeness and order?

I like challenges. Write oneself into something of a pit and then miraculously break free. But this isn’t some form of narrative suicide, it’s another way of approaching Story. Here’s why:

I have twelve or so ‘Writing Rules’ and sandwiched between number Seven: ‘Never use the word Majestic’ and number Nine: ‘On the hoof flexibility’ I have: ‘Always favour the less well trodden path’. An obvious adage, perhaps, but given the lamentable sameness of many novels, one that should be lifted to greater prominence. The theory is simple. You are walking in a metaphorical forest, chewing your metaphorical pencil and making narrative decisions, when you are presented with two paths – a well-worn route to safe, broadly-lit upland literary pastures, and a less-used one – a route towards experimentation, speculation, and risk. So I chose my idea – Post Apocalyptic Dystopia – and then noted the well trodden path: The immediate aftermath of a global upheaval. The population in disarray, citizens fighting for survival in a new world order. Too obvious. How about seven hundred years afterwards, when the fall of mankind has no more relevance than the Dark Ages has to us today? I don’t know about you, but I rarely talk about Edward III’s scandalous claim to the French throne in 1337, but it’s all people talked about then.

So we’re seven hundred years on and – several less well trodden paths later – we’re not talking about survival but simply getting through the day. A day in a different yet recognisable society based on different values and rules – visual colour in this case, where everything from social mobility, aspiration, health and commerce are based around colour. Earn enough and you can afford colorised bananas for dinner. More expensive, but it impresses the neighbours. The strict social hierarchy is decided not on something so hideously old fashioned as choice, intellect or the ability to lie convincingly to electors, but simply the colour you can see. If you are born able to see Purple you’re at the top of the stack; If you are born without any colour vision at all, then you’re at the bottom. Unquestionably objective. These are the sort of less well trodden paths I like. Because once you’re seven or ten less-well trodden paths from that first, the path has become so faint that you might not actually be on a path at all. And if you are now walking through that virgin forest of originality, then you have strayed well.

But it’s not enough to think up a new idea. It has to work. And that’s another less well trodden path all on its own. Landscape is one thing, characterisation and plotting quite another. And this is what I enjoy about the sort of writing I’m attempting in Shades of Grey – to try and give the mundane a narrative force all of its own. Two guys in a room and one of them has a gun? To me, that’s just plain lazy. Two guys in a room and one of them has lied about whether he has seen the last rabbit or not? And this one lie is enough to have someone ostracised by society and a need to prove themselves as redemption? Now that’s drama, and what’s more, it’s unconventional drama. The reader is always looking for something new and fresh and interesting, and since all the stories have pretty much been written, the bold frontier for authors these days is to further the technique of how they can be told – with different settings, different characters, different times – and for me, different values.

In case you’re wondering, we DO find out where all the spoons went, and you can learn how a tree goes Purple, and why the Green Room is better than the Mildew. You may even learn why nobody comes back from High Saffron, why there is a Caravaggio in the Greyzone and what Jane put in the Prefect’s scones. It’s narrative drive, but not as we usually know it. For me, the best Big Idea is the sneaky Small Idea that overtakes you on the inside when you’re not watching.


Shades of Grey: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of the novel. Visit the Shades of Grey Web site. Follow Jasper Fforde on Twitter.

Exit mobile version