The Big Idea: Martha Wells
Posted on March 15, 2011 Posted by John Scalzi 14 Comments
Where do we belong? To whom do we belong? Do we, in fact, belong at all? Questions that strike at the heart of any person who ever feels alone, and questions that Martha Wells kept in mind when it came time for her to write The Cloud Roads. Keeping these questions in mind have paid off for Wells — her novel received a coveted starred review in Publishers Weekly — and now she’s here to explain how these questions came to her in the first place, and why they matter so much for this book.
Most of my books have dealt in passing with themes of isolation and loneliness, feeling unable to fit in. I wasn’t an only child, but my sister was nine years older, and there were no other kids in the neighborhood around our house. I started reading early, and found adult SF and fantasy at what was probably way too young an age. Mostly because our branch of the Fort Worth Public Library placed the adult SF/F section next to the children’s literature with no clear line of demarcation. (“Spectacular mistake!” to quote Bill Nighy’s character from Pirate Radio.) This was before Star Wars, before the internet, and I didn’t know of any other SF/F fans. I read and thought about things that no one else in elementary school read and thought about, and sure didn’t talk about, and it was isolating.
I was told at one point by an authority figure that I was the only one in the world who liked SF/F. Even knowing that all those books in the library and the bookstore had to be produced for somebody besides me didn’t help much. Other kids my age believed that all books were written at some point in the distant past, by people who were long dead. (It also doesn’t help when someone tells these kids that all books are “ghost-written.”) I started to think that despite evidence to the contrary, maybe all those names on all those covers were dead people, or people who never existed. It was a depressing thought. Still, I felt like My People were out there somewhere, I just didn’t know where, and had no way to recognize them if I bumped into one in a crowd.
I wanted to revisit that feeling in The Cloud Roads, with a main character who was isolated and had to pretend to be something else in order to survive, who was afraid to show who and what he really was. And then I wanted him to find a way out of that situation to a certain extent, even though it wouldn’t be easy.
The main character Moon is an orphan, with no memory of who his people are or where they came from, no way to find others like him. His differences prevent him from staying anywhere for very long, even though he lives in a world with many different races and wildly differing cultures. He most closely resembles the Fell, brutal winged predators who feed on other intelligent species and survive by descending on and destroying entire cities. He’s been mistaken for one enough times that he knows he can never reveal his true self to anyone, even to friends and lovers.
When he does find his tribe, he also has to face the possibility that it may be too late for him to really become one of them. That he’s too different, and that he’s been alone too long.
I also wanted to capture that sense of wonder and possibility, of strange worlds with limitless horizons, that I felt while looking at the old paperbacks with the pulp covers tucked away in that corner of the library. But the heart of the book is about the need to find somewhere to belong, and what we are, or aren’t, willing to give up to get there.
The Cloud Roads: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s LiveJournal. Follow her on Twitter.
I’ve just ordered it.
I was also mainly a loner when I was young. I had friends but their minds weren’t in the same world as mine. I also discovered SF/F at a young age through the library – a conveniently placed spinrack of paperbacks. Due to the nature of library paperbacks, I read mainly classic stuff from the 30s-50s in the 70s, with a bit of current stuff. I remember the Lathe of Heaven really blowing my mind when I was 11.
I really enjoyed this book – I thought it was a great amalgam of characters, action plot and brilliant world-building.
Yeah, you can leave the world-building to Martha Wells.
I already have the book on my e-reader and looking forward to start reading it.
I just bought it, too – fascinating world!
Went to college in Fort Worth, and live not far from there now – I still feel like I’m the only person around here who reads adult fantasy. ;)
Martha is fabulous at world-building and creating characters I care about so I always buy her books right away. And the action-packed plotting keeps me reading into the small hours. I particularly admire that her worlds are not cookie-cutter faux-medieval settings.
Thanks Stan, Estara, and Berend! Iliadfan – there’s an SF/F con in Dallas now called ConDFW, held in February, with a focus on SF/F books and art.
Thank you, Edith!
I went to ConDFW for the first time this year! Read about it on Stina Leicht’s blog – she wrote a Big Idea post awhile back. ConDFW had great books. And authors. And girl scout cookies. Awesome combo, I think.
It sounds like Martha Wells would really like Jo Walton’s Among Others.
I can cheerfully recommend this book. Read it in three days only because I was pacing myself and didn’t want it to be done with.
Thanks, BigHank53! Glad you enjoyed it.
John, a minor irk I’d like to mention. This is the second “Big Idea” book I’ve purchased as an e-book from Amazon’s Kindle store only to discover I could have purchased it at webscription.net for less money and more importantly, no DRM (!). For books that are showing up on webscription.net, would it be possible to include a link to the book at that site as well? Thanks.
I just finished this book and really enjoyed it. Now to find Martha Wells’ other books! Thanks!
@David: Hey, thanks for the tip about webscription.net. Headed there now; I’m planning on picking this up too. Martha, love hearing you panelize at Dillocon. You always seem to have pithy, wry things to say without self-aggrandizement.