The Big Idea: Seanan McGuire
Posted on March 8, 2012 Posted by John Scalzi 35 Comments
Two years ago, Seanan McGuire found herself crowned with the Campbell Award as the best new writer in science fiction and fantasy; a year after that, writing as Mira Grant, she found herself nominated for the Hugo for Feed. That’s a steep and impressive climb for a new writer. The secret? In my opinion, it’s that McGuire is having fun with her writing, which makes it a kick to read. McGuire is having even more fun now with Discount Armageddon, a book that features lizard-men and other creepy-crawlies, ancient monster-fighting religious orders and a ballroom dancing heroine putting herself between both groups. But beneath the fun of this book there’s some serious thought involved, about women, choice, and whether or not superpowers are a crutch. McGuire explains more.
The first horror movie I remember in any detail* was Night of the Comet, a 1980s-era epic about two girls who manage to survive the return of the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. They face loneliness, mysterious red dust, killer zombies, evil scientists, and eczema, all in the name of reestablishing the human race. It would be charitable to say that I was influenced by this movie. Really, I was warped by this movie, which featured, among other things, a fluffy-haired blonde cheerleader who complained when she couldn’t have an Uzi. As in, “Daddy would’ve gotten us Uzis.”
(*Important distinction, since the first thing I can remember watching on a TV screen was the original Alien, when I was three. I liked the pretty flowers that hugged people…)
I was pretty much unsupervised in my television choices, since I didn’t have nightmares or set things on fire, so what was the harm in letting me watch whatever I wanted to? Consequentially, Night of the Comet was allowed to set the tone of my entire childhood. It was an endless stream of monster movies, science fiction shows, and reruns of my three favorite shows: The Addams Family, The Twilight Zone, and most especially of all, The Munsters. They had things in common, but the most important—to me—wasn’t immediately obvious.
They all had female characters who were important to the story, who did things, who made choices, but who had no superpowers whatsoever. Marilyn could have left 1313 Mockingbird Lane at any time. She could have had a totally normal life, far away from her monstrous relatives. And she chose to stay, because that was her family, and woe betide anyone who messed with Marilyn’s family.
As I got older, I really clung to that ideal, the woman choosing to live amongst the monsters because that was where she was happy. And lots of other things got into my head, including several years spent trying to figure out whether there was a baby lake monster living in my local creek, and several more spent studying folklore at a college level. It was a good life.
Somewhere in the middle of all that, things shifted. It stopped being okay to be a girl and make a choice: not only were the choices made for the female characters in most of the media I had access to, but they all had superpowers now, like it was totally impossible to believe that they could kick ass without a magical boost. This made me sad. I stewed on it for several years, because I am like a slow cooker of annoyance.
My friend Kate has another term for me. She calls me the cat toy.
We were watching So You Think You Can Dance on Fox—a reality show based around ballroom and modern dance styles—and there was this little blonde named Chelsea who could kick higher than her head without even trying. I liked her a lot. I opined that someone who could kick higher than her head was not someone you wanted to meet in a dark alley. And Kate, who enjoys nothing more than watching me start putting together a new series, said, “Prove it.”
I’d had this setting in my head for a while, something that was sort of half-ecological conservation of things that aren’t supposed to exist, half-my response to the sudden evolution of the Final Girl into a combination victim/McGuffin. (“Can she fly or kick your ass with her brain? Then she’s dead.”) It was built around a family who used to hunt monsters, and now took care of them.
A footnote: if you look at history, humanity has always been fond of monsters, and of girls and monsters. Dragons and princesses, virgins and unicorns, the occasional sea-monster sacrifice or temple maiden who ticked off the Greek gods. That’s not all that’s in the historical record. For instance, did you know that the first recorded cholera outbreaks came shortly after the last recorded instance of a monarch (the King of France, to be specific) receiving the gift of a unicorn’s head?
Unicorns supposedly use their horns to purify water, you know. And cholera is a waterborne disease. On that foundation was the ecology of a world based: everything exists, or did once, and nothing exists in a vacuum. Kill the siren that sinks a ship every generation, free the Colossal squid that eats your entire village. It was a setting I loved. What it didn’t have was a way for me to get inside and start strewing shit around.
Enter Verity Price, latest in a long line of cryptozoologists. That whole “ex-monster hunter” thing gave me the excuse to make her a ballroom dancer, and her brother a medieval recreationist, and a bunch of other things, because naturally, the people who stayed monster hunters aren’t too thrilled with them. To the monster hunters, Verity and her family are traitors, not just to their cause, but to the entire human race. So that means learning how to do your job as stealthily as possible, and turning ordinary, harmless-looking things—like ballroom dance—into a mechanism for kicking a lot of ass.
The other big component of this world was the mythology. I have my October Daye series, and I love them, but they’re limited to one primary mythology, the European conception of Faerie. I can take aspects of other mythologies, but it’s all still narrow. That’s good for the story I’m telling there, which needs borders. I wanted a story without borders, or at least with very few…and I got it. In this world, in Verity’s world, every urban legend and cryptid story is true, to one degree or another. Yeti and waheela and tanuki and Madhura and everything. It’s like having a huge toy box full of wonderful things, and I get to play with all of them, as often as I want. It’s amazing.
So it’s about family and about girls who choose and about monsters and people who love them and finding true things disguised as stories. And it’s about ballroom dance. Because who doesn’t love ballroom dance.
Discount Armageddon is about all of the above. Verity Price is away from home for the first time, she’s trying to find her place in the world, she’s trying to make her choice an informed one—and she’s trying to do her job. She wants to take care of the monsters, like a modern-day Marilyn with a much larger 1313 Mockingbird Lane under her care. And there’s ass-kicking and snark and all the other components of a madcap romp across the rooftops and through the sewers of Manhattan, but really, it’s about a girl, and a family, and a world full of monsters, and a choice. I want to see more choice in fiction. I want the chance to choose.
Also there are talking pantheistic demon mice who view absolutely everything as an excuse for a massive religious holiday culminating in a cheese and cake buffet. There was no way I could pass that up.
Discount Armageddon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Visit McGuires’ Livejournal. Follow her on Twitter.
The first horror movie I remember in any detail* was Night of the Comet,
It’s *still* one of my favorites. Watched it a few weeks ago. Still cracks me up.
Most fun reading a book I’ve had this year. The mice are hilarious, the heroine’s family drama is engaging, and the romantic connection is engaging.
Seanan Mcguire is one of my favorite writers, and I snatched this up as soon as I could on Tuesday.
Excited to read this one but might have to do so via Kindle with a cover like that.
** Sigh. ** Another Big Idea book that I’ve added to my Amazon cart.
I know! I’ll tell my wife that I bought it for her.
Great thread, with an amazing writer!
“Also there are talking pantheistic demon mice ….” — interesting story-hook!
I am so ready to read this when it hits trade paperback. I have read everything else by Ms. McGuire (also known as Mira Grant) and find it all to be excellent.
First time I’ve found a Big Idea post after staying up all night to read the book it concerns. Usually happens the other way around.
Dammit. I was being good. Other Big Ideas recently have tempted me. They’re on the to-read list, but I’ve got other stuff there too. I was smiling, but resisting this one too… right up until the pantheistic demon mice. Come on, that’s just UNFAIR. Who can resist pantheistic demon mice?
I love ballroom dancing and the Secret of NIMH!
Ginger Rogers meets Buffy? Yes, please.
I will now never be able to think of “Alien” as anything other than the movie with pretty flowers that hug people.
@Lynn McGuire. Don’t wait for trade. It’s out in the much less expensive mass market today!
I LOVE Seanan’s work and have since I picked up her first. She writes great strong women who don’t need men to prop them up. Snatched this up on Tuesday, even though I had to send the clerk to the back to take it out of the box. Great read!
the first thing I can remember watching on a TV screen was the original Alien, when I was three. I liked the pretty flowers that hugged people…
This explains so much about Seanan.
I have yet to read this book but I am going to acquire a copy as soon as I’m near a good local bookstore.
The cover led me to leaving the book on the shelf; it looks like every other urban fantasy novel with a “strong female lead”. However, I enjoyed the first October Daye book. I’m now 70% finished with Discount Apocalypse (according to my Kindle) and thoroughly amused.
I just noticed that it is MMPB. I am totally shocked, I figured that with Ms. McGuire’s previous track record that she would be published in hardback now. Not even trade paperback, who woudda thought?
The cover threw me a bit too. Seanan allegedly loves it, though.
Considering the cover is actually fairly accurate, I’m not surprised she approves.
Verity waits tables at Dave’s Fish and Strips, which she describes as “a tacky titty bar.” Professional ballroom dancing isn’t exactly a steady paycheck, after all. So the cover is probably Verity on her way home from work.
That doggone Night of the Comet still holds up as tongue in cheek, end of the world, zombie, strong female lead romp. whew…
I sent the Big Idea link to a few friends. At least one promptly ran off to buy the book…
I look forward to reading it myself. As so many have said, pantheistic demon mice!!!
I thought the book was a very good, fun light read. I recommend it to people who like fast paced, light hearted urban fantasy. It was also very refreshing that Verity wasn’t superhuman, but rather just human, and very well trained (with plenty of rational for why she is as skilled as she was).
I’ve thought I was being pretty good about resisting some of these “big idea” books too–or at least waiting for the library to get them. But you and Elizabeth Bear both mentioned this book on the same day–so I took it as a sign. Took less than a minute to get it on the Kindle and I just have to say that this device has seriously undermined whatever pitiful self control we serial book buyers ever had.
Consider it bought. Can’t wait to make the acquaintance of the demon mice!
New book? Squee!
John Scalzi: “balldancing heroine”.
Sliiiiiiiiiiiiight difference, just as ‘Polish folk dancer’ and ‘pole dancer’ are slightly different :)
I just kid because I love.
I love this idea! –and OMG–that thing about the unicorns –I feel as though a veil has been lifted and now I believe!
Yup. Awesome book, awesome author, more people should read it so more people know why I’m chortling gleefully for no apparent reason.
I just finished it. Fun times!
Catholic school girl skirt, katana blade, and pistol on hot woman. I don’t even need to read all those words in the post to realize the genius of this Big Idea! I just hope the cover artist conveyed the authors fantasy and not his own …. Lord knows I’ve been fooled before.
The outfit on the cover is canon, though its appearance in the book doesn’t describe it as pink. It’s her work uniform, which she wears on patrol in an early scene.
“Don’t judge a lady by her outfit” is a running theme throughout the book. For Verity, it’s because she can hide an awful lot of weapons under even the skimpiest ballroom dancing outfit. And it’s delightful.
My initial reaction to the cover is “oh God, not another terribly written ‘girl with supernatural skills’ whining her way through killing evil book”. The inspirations described I find really exciting but the character and her family sound flat. Having read the big idea it gets upgraded to the bottom of my slushpile if my library decides to pick this one up.
CHEESE AND CAKE!
Oooh, this looks good. I want to read it and enjoy, as well as compare with another series about hunting monsters. To the bookstore!
Reading now. Very awesome.