The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Dear world: Elizabeth Bear is awesome. Range of Ghosts is her new book. This is her big idea. Also: She is awesome. That is all.


There’s nothing new under the sun in epic fantasy, or so I’ve heard it said.

So when I was trying to come up with a Big Idea for an epic fantasy–a genre I’ve loved since before I wrote my first derivative plot coupon fantasy in fifth grade (it was deeply inspired by The Dark Crystal and Piers Anthony, but it had the best dragons ever–and I’m still stealing bits of my mad juvenile inventiveness and recycling them into other settings) it seemed to me that the obvious solution was to invent a different sun. Or maybe a whole slew of different suns.

So I did. Everybody gets their own sun! Or suns. And a set of skies to go with them.

Because the gods of this world are real, and the heavens–perforce–reflect their will.

It was important to me that this world have an economy. I wanted these books to question the too-easy monarchy “restore the king” plots that so often proliferate in our genre.

I wanted the fun and adventure of swords and sorcery, but I didn’t want to hew too closely to either the broad tropes of traditional heroic fantasy or the grittier perspective of the heirs of Fritz Leiber and Poul Anderson. Instead, I wanted a middle path–heroic, but not morally unexamined.

One of my best friends is a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. (It’s possible that I am, too–something like twenty percent of human beings alive today are, and my great-grandfather was a Cossack, a group that famously claims descent from the Golden Horde.) Her sons are my godsons, and as I considered settings, that coincidence–and the fact that have heard from friends of Asian and African descent over and over again how hard it is for them to find stories that acknowledge their heritage and cultures–influenced me.

There have always been exceptions, and this is changing, but too many fantasy worlds traditionally have not only failed to step outside of Tolkien’s worldbuilding, but don’t question the Eurocentric view of world history so many English speakers (I can’t say “the majority,” because I believe at last check India has more English speakers than most of the rest of the world) are given in grammar school. We speak of Alexander the Great, after all–and the terrifying Mongol Hordes. But the roles of Alexander and of Genghis Khan in history are not actually so very different.

Both men were conquerors. The difference in perspective–who is the hero and who is the scourge–has a great deal to do with cultural observer bias.

So I wanted these books to focus on the cognates of cultures that epic fantasy so often marginalizes–those mysterious Easterners, usually portrayed as a swarthy, untrustworthy threat on the borders of our heroes’ empire.

The intersection of those influences was the inception of the world of the Eternal Sky, of which Range of Ghosts is the first book. I knew I wanted a world of vast scope and deep history, inspired by the multicultural swords-and-sorcery milieu of classic genre works like the Conan cycle–but I hope with a bit less unexamined colonial baggage. And I knew I wanted to completely excise the usual Western European fantasy backdrops–so this is a world where the Prague-equivalent is a coastal city and Western Europe just doesn’t exist at all. No Greece, no Rome.

But a complex system of empires, khanates, caliphates, principalities–and trade routes dominates the cultural landscape.

Because dirty politics is fun.


Range of Ghosts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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10 Comments on “The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear”

  1. I’m still stealing bits of my mad juvenile inventiveness and recycling them into other settings) it seemed to me that the obvious solution was to invent a different sun. Or maybe a whole slew of different suns.
    So I did. Everybody gets their own sun! Or suns. And a set of skies to go with them.

    I was a bit confused by that, but I thought it was a cool bit. Temur has his own *moon* in the skies of his homeland. Different colored blue skies, and even places where the sun doesn’t rise in the east. Brilliant!

  2. She’s the rare author as awesome in person as on the page. The first mutual conversation that I recall was at the SFRA annual conference in a hotel-casino… Now I read everything by her that I can buy!

  3. traemurnane – I write things. Now I want to share them. Hope you like them. Tea's my drug of choice, dogs are my spirit animals. I collect pretty rocks, hike and garden. Books are my kryptonite.

    Added to the must read pile. Thanks

  4. changterhune – Before you hear lies from Chang Terhune himself, we thought we’d tell you the truth: without us, his old action figures, he’d be nowhere. He loved science fiction from way back and began reading it at an early age, but it was through us that he acted it all out. That’s what led to the writing. He watched a lot of science fiction shows like Star Trek, U.F.O, and movies, too. But we were always there to do his bidding. And it’s like they say: you always forget about the little people on your way up. Oh, the 70’s and early 80’s with him were good times! He’d use these blocks and make all the crazy buildings for us to be in his stories. I gotta say the kid’s imagination was pretty damn fertile. Oh, he had friends, but they just weren’t into it like him. He was like the Lance Armstrong of action figures. And of science fiction. At first, when he began writing in the eighth grade, we didn’t mind. He still made time for us. And we knew that when he was holding us in his sweaty little hands and he got that far off look in his eye, he’d come back to burying us in the back yard or - god forbid! – blowing us up with firecrackers. But it was worth it for a part in one of those stories. We loved him for it. He kept us around even when we were minus a leg or two - or even a head. In that mind of his, he found a use for all of us. Then he discovered girls. October, 1986. It was like the end of the world. One day we’re standing in the middle of this building block creation he’d pretended was some marble city on a planet near Alpha Centauri and the next we were stuck in a box in the closet. Not even a “See ya later!” Nope, it was into the closet, then we heard some high-pitched girly-giggles then silence. We didn’t see him for years. We got word about him once in a while. Heard he took up writing, but it was crap like “The Breakfast Club” only with better music. We couldn’t believe it. Not Charlie. What happened to those aliens with heads he’d sculpted out of wax? Spaceships? Those complex plots? All gone. For what? You guessed it: Girls. Emotions. “Serious fiction.” I tell you, it was like hearing Elvis had left the building. During our two decade exile in the closet, we heard other things about him. He went to college. He wrote a lot, but not much he really liked. We knew it even then. It was like he didn’t dare write science fiction. Some of us had lost hope and just lay there. Others kept vigil, hoping for a day we didn’t dare speak about. Then we heard he’d stopped writing in 1996. Did he come to reclaim us? No. He took up music for ten years or so. He took up yoga. Once in a while, he’d visit us in the closet. But it was half-hearted. His mind was elsewhere. Then one day, he really did come back for us. One second we’re in the dark and the next thing we know we’re in a car headed for Massachusetts. Suddenly we got a whole shelf to ourselves out in broad daylight! Then he bought a bunch of others form some planet called Ebay. He’d just sit and stare at us with that old look. But why were we suddenly back in the picture? He had a wife now, who didn’t mind that he played with us. So what had happened? Turns out he’d never forgotten about those stories. He’d been thinking about all of us and the stories he’d made up and then remembered he’d been a writer once. From the shelf we could see him typing away. Before long he’s got a whole novel together! Then he’s working on another one. Word is there are two more in the planning stages! Some short stories, too! It’s good to see him using his imagination again. Its good to know he never abandoned us. He returned to his true love of science fiction. We hear the stories are pretty good. Someday we’ll get one of the cats to score us a copy of the manuscript. Man, it’s good to be out of the damn closet! --- I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me

    Dude. Bear rocks! Can’t wait!

  5. This sounds really cool and I’m definitely adding it to my list.

    May I also thank you, Scalzi, for doing these Big Idea features? I’ve found more cool books by reading about fascinating Big Ideas in the last year than anywhere else on the internet. :)

  6. foxstudio – I'm a nature/wildlife artist. My art career began in 1976 as a sign painter's apprentice. I earned a BFA Illustration in 1989 from the Academy of Art in San Francisco. I've worked as a freelance sign painter/graphic designer, then graphic designer/illustrator. For the past twenty-three years I've focused on oil painting, but am now also going full circle back to the media I first fell in love with, pen and ink. I'm a member of the California Art Club, an Associate Member of American Women Artists and a Fellow of The Explorers Club. My work has appeared in a variety of prestigious national juried shows since 2003.

    Since I just bought my plane tickets for my seventh trip to Mongolia, I think that I shall have to add this book to my Must Read list. Her point about who is a “hero” and who is a “scourge” is well-taken. One finds very quickly upon arriving in Mongolia that Chinggis Khan (the correct transliteration of his name) is the Mongol equivalent of George Washington. He is the founder of their country, having united the tribes and created the The Great Mongolian State in 1206, and lawgiver. Today’s Mongols know perfectly well that at one time they created and held the largest land empire in history, creating the first “global” economy through their control of the Silk Road. And you can chat with them about it over Chinggis beer or Chinggis vodka.

  7. helgaleena – I am the grammar police section of the editing department of Dark Roast Press Lovers. That is how I know some of you-- from combing your commas, one of my great pleasures. I am in the Reformed Druids of North America, and am an Archdruid with a grove in Wisconsin which we keep very private. The Druid Network lists us, though, and I consider the Healing Line part of my ministry. Yes, my editing is healing of lines, and when it's romance, it's healing of hearts. The telephone number is 608-255-0504. I also listen and do distance Reiki. I also have a modest fanfiction empire, links to which are at the myspace page http://hlglne.livejournal,com where sex heals the Star Wars universe, one Force user at a time. The fanfiction came first, and I followed a number of you into the larger world of erotic romance. You will not see me much in here as I am busy polishing your sentences. Mwuahaha. helgaleena facebook lovers <a href="">facebook</a> <a href="">Helgaleena says</a> <a href=""> helgaleena-slash</a>

    I have to agree with the marmot. MUCH better than CATS.

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