The Big Idea: Sarah A. Hoyt

2010 is here, so let’s drive right in to this year’s series of Big Ideas. And to begin the new year, we have science fiction and fantasy author Sarah A. Hoyt and her new novel Darkship Thieves — for which one of the initiating reasons for the book was the author being annoyed. Annoyed at what? Or annoyed at whom? Hoyt will explain all — and remind us all that inspiration can some at you from any angle.


Most of my big ideas – and a lot of the small ones – start with my being annoyed.  In this case, the source of annoyance was the whole flap about clones and how the cloning technology was going to destroy the world.

Let’s forget for the moment that most journalists, displaying the biological knowledge of the common household teapot, seemed to believe that clones would be born with the memories of the original or would be a sort of dark-universe twin of the original.  That was bad enough but could be ignored.  What couldn’t be ignored was the continuous din of people who should know better for the regulation of this technology.  Let’s make it illegal, they said, because otherwise people will be cloning themselves and having their brains transplanted to the body of the clone; they’ll be using these kids for spare parts; they’ll be–

It went on and on.  Two things bothered me about this: first, the belief that humans would use the new technology only for “evil” purposes and second, the idea that legislation was a sort of magic wand that undid the technological discovery and made it unusable.  The first might be true or not.  Granted that the worst possible purpose is in the range of human uses of any given technology.   However, we don’t always follow through on our evil designs.  We haven’t managed to nuke ourselves out of existence yet, for instance.  As for law stopping it…  It depends whose law and where and how good enforcement is or can be.   I think the war on drugs has shown that nothing can be banned completely, permanently or effectively.

What banning technology can do – look at the war on drugs again – is make it go underground and thereby insure it gets used only for the worst – or at least the most harmful to society at large – purposes.  Drug addiction might be no picnic even if it were openly talked about, but it’s made worse by the fact that the activity is illegal, must be hidden and has taken roots in a whole criminal underground.

In my view, at least, banning cloning – and the inevitable human enhancement – technology would ensure it would be used for all those purposes that people were afraid of.

So I started with two worlds – the one in which cloning and human biological enhancement was banned, and the one where it wasn’t.

Only I’m cursed with a twisty and convoluted mind where no idea can be simple.  Besides the “good world” and “bad world” design was too Manichean to satisfy my inner critic.  Things are never that black and white.

I went back to the drawing board and let other themes fall in – themes that interest me, like the idea of the resilient child that turns out all right despite everything.  And the one that doesn’t.   Like human instinctive – if hidden – dislike of those who are perceived as different.  Tinged with fear when those who are perceived as different are also smarter. Like the idea that there is no technology that would be harmful in the hands of an individual that can’t be made more so – on an epic scale – in the hands of an entrenched bureaucracy.

So when Darkship Thieves starts, in the 24th century, biological enhancements are illegal on Earth.  They didn’t start out illegal, but heavily regulated in most of the world.  In the rest of the world, on the other hand, they’d been used by tin pot dictators and corrupt bureaucracies.  It had started on a massive scale, creating children as fodders for armies, as strength for ethnic majorities, and as smart people who could fix all of the world’s problems.

What this led to was tyranny by super-engineered humans – Mules – who didn’t consider themselves human, partly through having hobbles (including the inability to reproduce) built into their genes, partly through having been raised as things, not people.  It eventually led to a revolt against the Mules and an overthrowing, which resulted in a world wide government of sorts and tight controls on human improvement and artificial human genetic change.

The Mules and some of their more grossly bio-engineered collaborators escape to space.  The still-human servants of the Mules colonize an asteroid.  The Mules themselves go on, into the wider space, because even among their collaborators they are considered odd and inspire fear.

Those still human servants form Eden, a society in which bio-engineering is extensively used and in the open.  They are connected to an Earth that doesn’t even believe they exist through one of the remaining pieces of technology introduced by the Mules – powertrees.  The powertrees grow in the vacuum of space and yield power pods, which can be harvested and are used to power the technology of Earth and Eden.  Edenites collect these pods by flying ‘darkships’ and making use of bio engineered pilots and navigators.

Athena Hera Sinistra, daughter of a Good Man – sort of a regional governor – of Earth tumbles into the midst of Eden society when she’s rescued from the powertrees by a darkship pilot.

The end result could be described, in Shakespeare’s words, as “all are punished.”  Or perhaps “all are redeemed.”  It depends on how you look at it and squint.

Not that there is anything murky about Athena, or Kit, the darkship pilot who rescues her.  They are quite decisive and active in facing what’s wrong with both of their flawed societies and in trying to improve it (in Athena’s case a little… er… forcefully.  The woman has anger issues.)  But in the end their struggle to reach what they consider humanity – humanity as a moral, not just a biological ideal – passes through personal discovery and revelation of deep, dark ills in both their worlds.

They fight against those evils – I cannot seem to write characters who merely whimper about things.  I’ve tried – and emerge victorious for a given definition of the word.  They find themselves as humans – or as human as they’re likely to be.  They find their own places in the universe and an humanity that transcends biological status or appearance.

Of course, they’re only two people, so they cannot change their worlds completely.  That will take time and independently-arising movements.

So we’ll leave my characters, at the end, sure of themselves and willing to continue struggling.  Revolution and wholesale mayhem will have to wait for future books.


Darkship Thieves: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Darkship Thieves. Visit Sarah Hoyt’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.

47 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sarah A. Hoyt”

  1. For those of us who are eBook-only, it’s also available both as part of the January Bundle or as a stand-alone purchase at the publisher’s eBook website,

    Wide variety of formats and *no* DRM!

  2. Julie L,

    Not a new genre, just a new take on Heinlein type stories. I’ve read DST twice so far. It is an exceedingly good book.

  3. It’s well worth reading *all* of Sarah’s books! (under all of her, many, aliases ::GRIN::)

    I haven’t had any complaints about *any* of her books; whether they be fantasy; Musketeer Mystery; Shifters; Paranormal or furniture refinishing Mysteries.

    I’m really looking forward to the sequel, and subsequent books.

  4. Hey the cover art alone will cause some to pick the book up, which I suspect is the intent.

  5. Andrew,
    I happen to think the cover is great. Baen may have had some, er, questionable covers in the past, but they have some great ones now. More importantly, this cover happens to fit the book — Athena does spend time in very few clothes, usually doing mayhem to those whose actions led to her being in that state.

  6. Amanda: Mayhem, eh? I haven’t had time to read “Darkship Thieves” yet, having spent the holiday literally up to my eyeballs in work.

    However, I’m not really surprised. Kyrie Smith, the heroine of both “Draw One in the Dark” and “Gentleman Takes a Chance” struck me as very much a “kick ass and take neither names nor prisoners” sort of girl.

    To all listeners: those books too are very much worth reading. I had a ball with them.

  7. Ugh, another Big Idea that got me. And webscriptions just sweetens the deal. Love me some DRM free ebooks.

  8. I’m not so sure Athena is all angry. Rather, she’s really, really annoyed and tries to make the annoyance go away in a manner reminiscent of someone killing snakes.

  9. Matt: Personally, I’m grateful for being “gotten” by Big Ideas. There are at least six authors I never might have found out about without this feature.

    And even when I already know about the author, as in the Michael Z. Williamson feature and this one, I learn things about the story or background that I didn’t know.

    John: Please keep ’em coming. Thank you.

  10. I love the cover of the book. I will have to go to the local B & N soon to get it. :)

  11. I was fortunate enough to hear Mrs. Hoyt read the first bit of the book from her netbook at a Con. I got hooked and had to wait seemingly forever for the release. I just got it, and can’t wait to read it!

  12. Sounds very interesting. I think I might have to go purchase the ebook now.

    Really liking the Big Idea stuff, since it tipped me off about a lot of books I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. At any rate I wouldn’t have bought Boneshaker if not for the Big Idea article. I may not have been interested in every book that an author has done a Big Idea for, but it still helps me spend my money wisely, instead of going to the Science Fiction/Fantasy section of Barnes and Noble and trying to pick something at random that seems relatively interesting at the time (which sometimes works very well, but most of the time does not). Good stuff.

  13. As for thoughts on making things illegal forcing them to be used for evil, and the so-called war on drugs, I’m just on the very last pages on Ben Elton’s High Society. If you can bear Elton’s style (I can very much so – I got High Society and Meltdown for Christmas, and when I have read them I’ll be fully up-to-date), you will find this a really thought provoking book about the idea of legalising all recreational drugs (yes, all of them), and a good story as well :-)

  14. Damn it… that’s another order placed and I was telling myself beforehand I wouldn’t buy anything with a cover like that. The story sounds good though… :)

  15. I’ve always wondered about those “make it illegal so the following list of bad things can’t happen” arguments. In the case of clones, all of the “bad things” I’ve ever heard about are a) impossible, b) probably more difficult than cloning, c) already illegal, or d) kind of stupid.

    a) So, you want exact copies of you? Have you ever met a set of twins? They aren’t the same person; they’re two similar persons. Mind transfer, huh? Here, these men in white coats want you to put this tinfoil over your head. Thought stealing is SO common. Just go with them.

    b) So you plan on taking your clones and making them into supersoldiers. Are they cloned from supersoldiers? OK good. Do you know how the original supersolder became a supersoldier? Maybe? OK, we’ll skip that one. Now this massive infrastructure you plan on estabilshing to raise the hundreds of thousands/millions of supersoldiers for two decades, where is it exactly, and how do you keep CIA, MI5, FSB, and a bunch of other people from coming and asking you questions?

    c) So, you want to clone yourself, then grow that person up secretly to harvestable age and chop them up for parts? Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t child abuse and murder already illegal?

    I’ll have to think about a d) example. I’m not feeling stupid this evening.

    I’d noticed the book at Baen the other day. Maybe it will move up in the queqe.

    Jack Tingle

  16. Jack,

    You are exactly right. And the fact is the only organization that could raise super soldiers (Or in the case of my book, rather lowly workers and some super-functionaries, plus other, specialized kinds) would be a governmental organization. In which case laws can be suspended or circumvented.

  17. Theyis,

    I actually like the cover. Not because of the naked thing — although, frankly, a bimbo on the cover of your book (not that anyone would call Athena a Bimbo. Not twice, at any rate) is a time-honored way to sell books — but because it’s very much centered on her. And the novel is, among other things, of her finding a place where she can “be” and of her finishing raising herself. (Not a coming of age story, as such because, bleah, I’m past the age of writing coming of age. ;) )

    Of course, it is an impossibility for the setting of the novel — she’s walking naked, in space :D BUT the “feel” is right, if that makes sense. I took the nudity in the same sense as the birth of Venus, not as a titillating thing.

  18. Mark,
    I’ll give it a look-see. It sounds in line with themes I read, though usually in non-fic.

  19. Mr. K,

    My older son (18) is reading the book and I loved when he got to the hospital scene and he came to me and said, “Wow. She wakes up naked, in bed, surrounded by a lot of armed people. She has them surrounded.” :) That was the effect I wanted.

  20. The book sounds fantastic — definitely be looking into this one! (As is so often true with The Big Idea.)

    I think this is one of my favourite BI essays so far, because of the way it so clearly demonstrates the process and path you took developing from your original idea into a full-fledged story. You took the core idea so far, then demonstrated how you brought in other concepts and from there all the way to individual characters and, hence, their story. As a budding writer, that’s as fascinating to me as the ideas themselves. Thank you! :)

  21. Erf,

    It seems like nothing is ever direct and simple for me in writing. I often claim I don’t write with my brain, but with everything else. This is not true, as the idea originates in the brain, but then the everything else works into it.
    The thing is, if I don’t believe the story I can’t write it. So I have to fumble around till the story is convincing, first.

  22. Oh good, the cover discussion happened without me. What I really want to know is when Baen is going to stop using that same title style? I don’t care what’s on the cover. The font screams “BAAAEEEENNN!”.

  23. Sarah, this may be the one situation where “look! naked babe on the cover!” does in fact fit what’s in the book, but the casual browser has no reason to know that; if I’m scanning through paperbacks to buy at the store, it’s really unlikely that I would think aha, *this* attempt to lure in my book-buying dollars by assuming I’m male and appealing to my groin is actually an image consonant with the story. I think that’s what folks are grousing about.

  24. Yay, for future biotech’ed clothing materials that prevent embarassing wardrobe malfuntions!

  25. Mythago,

    Actually I don’t know if this was the publisher’s intent, but the book cover these days says “look, I look a bit like Urban Fantasy.” No, I don’t understand how this trend got started, but if you look at them, a lot of Urban Fantasy books have partially naked woman — often in sexy poses — on the cover. No, I don’t understand why that would appeal to a female reader, but at this point it’s become a code. So, you’re not being angled for… Women readers are. I think. (Note nothing vital shows in the “naked woman”)

  26. Oh gosh its cover debate time again. Let me point out that – Urban Fantasy hint or not – this is in most respects a classic Baen cover. Now you may think Baen covers are cheezy, demeaning to women or 101 other things (and quite likely be right) but one thing they absolutely are is distinctive as a brand. You can recognize them immediately on the shelves and that means that if you liked this book it’s easy for you to find another Baen title.

    Baen is, IMO, the absolute leader in branding as far as SF/F publishers go and tied nicely with some Romance publishers/imprints at the top of all publishers. They are also (as I understand it) one of the few publishers who is seeing sales increases YoY recently. These two facts are probably connected.

  27. Actually, I suspect “branding” has less to do with Baen’s popularity than the fact that, unlike other publishers, they actually *listen* to their readers and talk to us. As far as I can tell, most of the other publishers have very nice sites for fluff and puff and “Oh, here’s one coming up!”

    But, just TRY to find “feedback” or “contact us” on, say, Harper Collins or Simon and Schuster. And DON’T get me started on Tor’s “We’ll give you eBooks when the Ninth Circle of Hell melts” attitude.

  28. FrancisT – Thank you for pointing out that book covers where women are sexualized are good at selling books to Baen’s target audience. I never would have figured that out.

  29. Josh Jasper, yeah, Baen covers are good at selling to Baen’s target audience. Let’s see, I’m not exactly young. I’m female. I’m an avid reader. I like SF/F when done well…yep, that’s Baen’s target audience — readers.

    Seriously, the cover art is eye catching and, if you read the first couple of pages of the book, you can see that the cover actually does have something to do with the plot. I know that in the past Baen, like so many other publishers, had cheesy covers and the like, but painting today’s covers with the same brush is like saying all science fiction is the same as it was in the days of the pulp magazines.

    It is a truth that many readers buy a book based on its cover. This cover will get people to pick the book up and make an impulse buy. First, because it does scream “urban fantasy”. Second, because it also screams “SF” and finally because there will be someone who buys it because it does have a half naked woman on it. Welcome to marketing 101.

  30. Okay. I am a woman in case this is not obvious. I’d have NOTICED undue treatment of women’s bodies. Most Baen books don’t sexualize women in their covers. Heck, most Baen books don’t sexualize anyone in their covers. The typical Baen book has “scene from the novel” illustrated on cover, which no other house does. (Or does as much)

    Leaving that aside and admitting that there is the occasional naked-woman cover on Baen books– really? You’re going to argue that Baen is the only one that uses women’s bodies to sell books?

    I am given to understand I’m stepping into the middle of some very odd ax grinding which — to be honest — I don’t even understand, but this is specious reasoning. Almost every house uses women’s bodies to sell books, even when they’re appealing mostly to women. (And again color me confused. I’d rather have half-naked man on cover, say one of Valejo’s early works.)

    And some houses use that, like this:

    But then there’s this:

    And this:

    Because you know, nothing to dress in to hunt creatures of the night like tight, sexy dom-like outfits. No sexualizing of women’s bodies there!

    And what is the alternative, really? Would you like me — mid forties, forty pounds over weight and looking like someone’s mom — on a cover? Heck, I wouldn’t. Or do you want scene from the novel? Most of those are not particularly attractive. Which is WHY people sneer at “Baen covers” — and it’s no use telling me they don’t, I’ve heard it. FROM people in the industry, like booksellers.

    The target audience I’m aiming for is Heinlein’s “People willing to spend their beer/chocolate money to buy a book.” IF my book can make them think, so much the better.

  31. Amanda – I know that in the past Baen, like so many other publishers, had cheesy covers and the like, but painting today’s covers with the same brush is like saying all science fiction is the same as it was in the days of the pulp magazines.

    If you can point out where I implied that, I’d be fascinated.

    …and finally because there will be someone who buys it because it does have a half naked woman on it. Welcome to marketing 101.

    Welcome to sarcasm 101.

  32. Are we really going to get into it regarding Baen and other SF/F covers? It’s really its own discussion, and I’d really prefer to keep the focus on the novel.

  33. Josh, glad you recognize sarcasm. And I will apologize for naming you and then commenting on something several others had said. When I did it, I thought you had said something similar as well. However, addressing your comment about the font screaming Baen, what’s wrong with that? It is part of their branding and, with this cover in particular, the title stands out and isn’t lost in the illustration. It works. To see what I mean, check out Lucienne Diver’s blog where she mentions those books by her clients being released this month and look at their covers. I suggest that DST stands out not only because of the font used, but also because the cover art is eye-catching. Here’s that link —

  34. I agree with John that covers are not the topic. However, it is interesting that nine times out of ten the buying decision revolves around a cover — which no writer but the very successful ones have a say on. The other time the decision to first pick up a book is based on the title, which houses often change.

    Since I became a writer and acquainted with the publishing process, I have tried to ignore those cues and read the beginning of the book and back blurb before deciding.

    Still, I must admit that I can’t avoid my eye seeking out attractive covers, as I walk a bookstore. I think that’s why so many covers feature the (attractive) human form/face and why there is a filk called “There is a bimbo on the cover of my book.” Humans focus on other humans, so it makes perfect marketing sense. Blame the ape-brain.

    And for the record, our sub-genre has NOTHING to blush for. The only time I’ve been embarrassed by the cover of a book I was reading was while coming back from the annual Romance Writers of America conference, reading one of the freebies.

    The freebie is a good historical, with depth of characterization and no more than the obligatory romance sex (I read everything, but romance perhaps a little less than the rest.) As usual, I had my nose in the book while boarding, till I got to my seat and put the book open face down on the seat (yes, I know, my husband hates it when I do that to books) while I put my suitcase up on the overhead compartment. As I closed the lid and looked at my seat companions — a middle aged lady and a young gentleman — they were both staring from me to the book cover.

    This was when I realized that instead of the normal dragon, spaceship or even somewhat demure sf/f “bimbo” the book I was reading had as a cover… a regency lady straddling a regency gentleman, their clothes pulled “just so” that you KNEW what they were doing and the mind kind of filled the naughty bits in where the eye couldn’t see them.

    I cringed in my seat for two hours and I bought a kindle before I traveled again. :)

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