The Big Idea: Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge

Here’s a Big Idea piece full of the magic of living in the electronic age: authors Sherwood Smith and Dave Trowbridge saw an opportunity with the advent of DIY eBook publishing to resurrect their Exordium space opera series (of which Ruler of  Naught is the second book) — but more than that, they saw an opportunity to revisit the work and make it current, in more ways than one. Now, the details about making an old story ready for a new age.


Ruler of Naught is Book Two of our space opera Exordium, which began life as a mini-series screenplay over twenty years ago, morphed into a mass-market paperback, and is returning again as an e-book series.

E-books are not only giving new writers an alternative to traditional book publishing, but letting oldsters like us resurrect yellowing paperbacks from used-book crypts. That’s a fun process (mostly), but from Exordium’s beginning we’ve struggled with the skiamorphs (shadow shapes—like wood grain on plastic) that are left not only when you move between media, but when your twenty-year-old vision of a technology’s cultural impact collides with present-day reality.

This is appropriate, because our Big Idea is all about skiamorphs: a future world replete with echoes of a distant, earthly past that let us take all the things we loved in books, art, film, and TV and use them to create the kind of science fiction movie we would want to watch.

Had just watched. We were a couple of twenty-somethings in 1977 when Star Wars came out. Younger readers probably can’t imagine the impact of that film on a generation accustomed to SF movies that were either glorified monster fights or preachy future-shock stories filled with plastic furniture and tight jumpsuits that would take an hour to get out of if you had to pee.

On our way out of the 2:30 a.m. showing, we looked at each other and said, “We can do that, but  . . . tech that makes sense!”

“More than one active woman!”

“Ruritania in space!”

“More than one active woman!”

Together: “Pie fights! Fart jokes!”

Thus was born Exordium. At the time Sherwood worked as a flunky in Hollywood, so the first version was a six hour miniseries. On the strength of it we got a good Hollywood agent, and there was a bid war shaping up between NBC and the then-new HBO when . . . boom! The mega-strike of 1980. When that was over, the studios were so depleted that min-series projects were put on hold—for the most part a euphemism for “killed.”

So we decided to turn it into books—and that meant breaking the chains of “can’t do that on TV,” developing the sketchy cultures, and completely rethinking the necessarily limited space battles, which had been confined to bridge scenes with rudimentary 1980s style FX. Dave dived into military history to figure out more about how the ships and tech he’d come up with would fight. Sherwood delved into cultural history to develop the manners, politesse, and political maneuvering we wanted.

Dave also got into high-tech PR and started thinking harder about how the technologies of the future would change humanity. Our world acquired an interstellar ship-switched data network. Our characters acquired “boswells.” Today we call them smartphones, which don’t yet have neural induction for subvocalized privacy. Boswells were (and are) great plot devices, with an intricate etiquette of usage.

But we totally missed social media. That wasn’t a problem, of course, when we sold the series to Tor in 1990, where, despite an awesome editor and great covers, it mostly vanished into the black hole of the mass market crash. But now we’re bringing them back as e-books. Twenty years into the future we didn’t see, which features a publishing industry that didn’t see it either.

The usual way to convert a genre novel from the days of yore into an e-book is to scan it, do a fast triage for OCR weirdness (there will be lots), whop together a new cover using Photoshop and images culled from various sources, stick it up on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc., and then publicize the hell out of it on Facebook or Twitter or, umm, Scalzi’s Big Idea.

The DIY route is getting cheaper and faster all the time, and plenty of authors are following it, some quite successfully. But even so, what do you do with science fiction that purports to take place in the future, but contains elements that look, well, quaint? You either grit your teeth and reissue the book as a period piece, or you rewrite it. And if you choose the latter, what’s inside the can may be more Elder God than annelid.

In Exordium, we had to wrestle again with the original screenplay, much of which still shadowed the story, especially in the first book. The language that would pass Programs & Practices in 1980 required made-up cusswords; the default for soldiers and action characters was male; by the nineties Dave had developed the idea of the boswells but in Exordium, everyone seemed to be running to computer stations for communication.

We kept the cuss words. Many readers don’t like neologisms, especially for profanity, but the Exordium idiolect had become too much a part of the world. Everything else needed a serious revamp, including the complex battle scenes, which had to be purged of the last traces of non-relativistic widescreen physics. (It helped that some very competent military gamers had developed an Exordium tactical board game based on the paperbacks.)

Rewriting wasn’t all work. One of the joys of revisiting a world in this way is discovering the zings, connections, and hidden history you missed the first time around. Rewriting becomes like looking into a Mandelbrot kaleidoscope.

There was one other skiamorph we faced, DIY itself, which is a pre-Internet, pre-open-source shadow of traditional publishing’s vertical integration. Authors don’t have to do it all themselves, and all sorts of different publishing models are emerging.

We went with Book View Café, which began in 2009 when a bunch of pro authors with substantial backlists got together to resurrect them. They started by offering free reads. Now BVC is an invitational cooperative of established authors that provides all publishing services in-house with volunteer labor. For instance, the first Exordium was proofread by Judith Tarr and formatted by Vonda McIntyre, to mention but two steps in the process.

Think of it as a kind of “Occupy Publishing” and you’re not too far off. Its consensus model of governance works because all its members agree on the fundamental principle that has come to be known as Yog’s Law: “Money always flows to the author.”

Knowing that we didn’t have to bear the whole burden of e-publishing Exordium, we were able to throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the rewrite of a retro space opera that Yog himself said reads “as if Doc Smith had come of age during the Summer of Love.” A playboy prince with unexpected depths, a gang of space pirates and their beautiful but deadly captain, ancient weapons from a war lost by the long-vanished masters of the galaxy, coruscating beams of lambent light, intricate space battles where light speed delay is both trap and tool, twisted aristocratic politics more deadly than a battlefield, a bizarre race of sophonts that venerates the Three Stooges, a male chastity device mistaken for the key to ultimate power…

And yes, a high tech pie fight.

(You can get started on Exordium with Book One, The Phoenix in Flight, for $0.99 for the next month—using flexible pricing for e-book promotion is another advantage of the medium…but that’s another essay.)


Ruler of Naught: Book View Cafe|Amazon

Read an excerpt from the novel. Visit Sherwood Smith’s LiveJournal. Visit Dave Trowbridge’s Twitter.

Wrapping Up 2011

It’s my last column of the year this week, and so perhaps predictably I’ve put together some final thoughts on 2011 and film, the state of the film industry, and some of the lesser-seen indie science fiction films which are worth the time for viewing. Read my thoughts, and comment on them if you like, by clicking this link. Enjoy! THAT’S AN ORDER.