Big Idea

The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig

Ladies and gentlemen, Chuck Wendig has an unusual answer for the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as it relates to his novel Under the Empyrean Sky. Do you dare learn its terrible secrets? Sure, you dare. That’s why you’re here.


Everyone always asks where you get your ideas or where the idea for a particular book came from and honestly, this one? Under the Empyrean Sky?

It started as a joke.

I blog five days out of seven at terribleminds and sometimes the blog posts come easily and other times they come like I’m trying to perform a root canal on a velociraptor and one of the times the blog post came easy was one where I talked about – and asked people to submit their own – SomethingPunk derivatives. You got cyberpunk, dieselpunk, bugpunk, and so forth, and I thought it’d be a whole sack of hoots for folks to invent their own silly SomethingPunk subgenres.

One of my suggestions was “cornpunk.”

I wrote:

The yaddayaddapunks generally posit a world essentially fueled by the yaddayaddathing, right? Everything runs on steam in steampunk, cyberpunk shows a world ineluctably married to futuristic corporate computer culture, and splatterpunk reveals a future where everything is based on an economical ecosystem of gore and viscera. (Okay, I might have that last one wrong.) If you were to assign our current day and age a Somethingpunk name, you might think of it as “Oil-and-Cheeseburger-Punk,” but that really doesn’t have a ring. But. But! Everything is also based on corn. I think with a few knob twists and lever pulls, you could crank that up and offer up a crazy moonbat podunk dystopian future-present where all of Western Civilization is powered by corn and corn-derivatives. It’s all silos and cornfields and giant mega-tractor-threshers and it’ll be all “Great Depression II: Sadness Boogaloo.” And fuck me if this didn’t start out as a joke but now sounds completely compelling. I call dibs! I call dibs on cornpunk! And niblets, too! Corn niblets! I call dibs on corn niblets because they are delicious!

See, right there, even in the post, I started to think, Maybe there’s something here. I opened up the giant time-eater that is Google and on a lark did some research on corn. And what I found there was both pretty cool and pretty scary. For instance:

Corn is in 75% of the processed food products in the grocery store. You look at the ingredients on the back of the box and some of them are the Corn you know (corn syrup, corn starch, corn meal), but many are the Corn you jolly well didn’t know (dextrose, maltodextrin, ascorbic acid, calcum citrate, white vinegar, vanilla extract, and a couple other dozen unusual suspects).

We also feed it to most of our factory-farm livestock. It’s not what cows like to eat, but we make ‘em eat it anyway, and then they get sick, and then we pump ‘em full of antiobiotics, and then they create superbugs, and then we give them new antibiotics and, well.

We’re starting to feed corn to salmon. Because if there’s one thing the salmon have always wanted, it’s buttery corn on the cob. (Now they just need teeth!)

Corn yields are up 500% in the last century. The United States is the largest producer of corn in the world. AND PROBABLY THE GALAXY.

In 2011, the United States had 84 million acres of cornfields. Which yielded over $60 billion in cash receipts from sales.

Corn can make fuel (ethanol). It can be used to make plastic.

Corn has almost double the number of genes that humans have.

In the documentary King Corn, the filmmakers learn that their own human DNA actually has a little bit of corn DNA in it.

Regardless of whether this leans more toward pretty cool or more toward pretty scary, it paints a fascinating picture—and suddenly, a corn-fed agricultural dystopia starts to make sense.

Looking into corn means looking into genetically-modified food—which is itself not a demon, but the behaviors of a GMO company like Monsanto certainly (to quote Grosse Pointe Blank) “reads like a demon’s resume.” Then you start to realize that prices for real fruits and vegetables have gone up 20-30% while corn-based processed food products like soda have gone down in price by 20-30%. Even if GMOs themselves aren’t directly contributing to health problems the overabundance of corn remains freaky.

This all started as a joke, but suddenly I wasn’t laughing.

All of this research was happening at an interesting time, too—we hadn’t yet gotten to Occupy Wall Street yet, but we were hip-deep in an economic recession and heard rumblings about class inequality. Marriage was a big issue, too—we had the party of small government ostensibly disproving that thesis and trying to force government to define marriage in a very narrow, very troubling way.

Things in the world were shaking up.

Plus, on a personal level, holy shit, my wife was pregnant.

And suddenly that put a lot of things in focus. I became more concerned about what was in our food (because I was going to be feeding it to a tiny human who probably needed something better than a corn-based diet). I became troubled by the world and the inequality in it. I became interested too in writing a book my son could one day read (I won’t let him read Blackbirds until he’s 37.)

The story bloomed fully-formed in my brain. And in the month prior to his birth and just after, I wrote my ass off and produced a manuscript I initially called Popcorn—it was meant to be a fun young adult action-adventure that also had a subversive twist because it was set in a sunny dustbowl agricultural dystopia where corn was everything and all corn was a (literally) bloodthirsty breed called Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The hyper-rich (the Empyrean) lived in big floating flotillas in the sky while the rest of the world toiled away in the rainless, pollen-caked Heartland below. (Author John Hornor Jacobs calls it The Grapes of Wrath meets Star Wars, which isn’t inaccurate.)

Cancer was everywhere. Animals were few and far between. Vegetables were practically non-existent and the food they ate was industrially produced (though hey, they sometimes eat shuck rats, too). Some humans had begun to demonstrate signs of the Blight—where they manifested actual plant matter growing over their existing limbs (leafy fingers, thorny teeth, vines for arms).

Marriage was forced in a ceremony called an Obligation—at the age of 17, the Empyrean decided which boys would marry which girls and that was that. If you were gay, too damn bad. If you wanted to remain unmarried, hey, as they are wont to say in the first book: That’s life in the Heartland.

But it couldn’t just be life in the Heartland. Fiction is about change. About subverting and destroying the status quo. A story isn’t a straight line. It’s about the jagged peaks and vertiginous valleys and all the complicated kinks and hooks.

And so this book is about seeing a world well past the point of no return and finding the hope both in their world and ours. It’s about being angry and making a change. The teens in the book—part of a scavenging crew from a town called Boxelder—discover a secret garden of real vegetables, and the discovery of that garden leads them on a journey through the blood-hungry corn, to dead-towns and subterranean places where they have to deal with Blighted Heartlanders and broken hearts, with hobo armies and oppressive Empyreans, and with the dark secrets their own families and fellow townsfolk possess…

What began as a joke became a book.

Fiction is funny that way, I guess.


Under the Empyrean Sky: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the book’s page. Read the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.


There Shall Your Heart Be Also

Lately I’ve been thinking about Matthew, chapter six, and how it applies to me and my life.

Matthew, chapter six, for those of you who do not know, has Jesus midstream in the Sermon of the Mount, talking about giving to the poor, and praying and being pious. The text is here (I point you to the King James version, because its language is pretty, but you can select more modern versions), and the gist of it is simple: if you do good things in order to be seen by other people doing good things, then that is your only compensation; God will reward you no further. But if you do them quietly and without any fuss, then God will indeed reward you in full, in heaven. The summation of this line of thinking is in verse 21: “For where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.” In other words: You are what you value.

I am an agnostic of the “I’m almost certain God does not exist, but intellectual honesty requires me to admit I just don’t know” stripe, so in a obvious, literal sense Matthew 6 can’t do much for me. I don’t pray, and for the good works I do here in this world, I don’t expect compensation in the next, because I don’t believe there is a next world. Here and now is all we have.

But I know wisdom when I see it, and the underlying wisdom of Matthew 6 is universally applicable. It asks why one does good works: Is it to be seen doing good works, or because good works are in themselves are worth doing, regardless of public reward? Is it more important to be a good person or to be seen as a good person? The answers to these questions point to who you are.

I struggle with this because one of my failings is a desire for recognition (hello, I’m a writer). I like to be seen and I like to be seen doing things of value. I like the response I get from them; I like being known as a good guy. I can even argue that there is value in me being seen doing good “out loud,” as it were. In the science fiction and fantasy community, for example, I am a “big name.” My actions can be multiplicative. By being seen doing good, I can sometimes cause more good to happen. It’s a cool thing to be able to do.

But it’s a rationalization that avoids the actual question of why I choose to do good things. Am I doing it because I am doing what I feel is correct moral action? Am I doing it because I enjoy people telling me I am a good guy, and the one sure way to do that is to be seen being a “good guy”? At the end of the day, what is at the root of my drive to do good?

It’s easy to argue that in one sense it doesn’t matter. The homeless guy you give new shoes to doesn’t care whether you’re doing it to look good to others, to God or to yourself. What he cares about is the new shoes. And that’s a solid point to make. Actions matter in themselves. Good can result from actions undertaken for selfish reasons, or through vanity.

But I do think it matters, or at least it matters to me. There’s a line out there that says “Character is who you are when no one else is watching.” You are who you decide to be and how you choose to act, even when there is no penalty or reward outside of your own sense of self. I am vain; I like being seen doing good things. Separately, I have pride that when I choose to do good out loud, that it can make a difference in my community. But I also want to be the person who would do good things even if only I ever knew what I had done. I want to be the person who can choose to make life better for others even if those people never know. I want to have the moral courage to do right action for itself. I want to know that, stripped of vanity and pride, I will still choose to do good, and thus be good. I want to believe that I can be the better image of myself I hold in my head.

And that’s why Matthew chapter six turns over and over in my mind. It speaks to me because it speaks to how I live my life and who I want to be. It reminds me that it is difficult to strip away the ego and see right action as its own reward. It reminds me that even when I do good work out loud that the focus should be what I am doing, not that I am doing it. It reminds me that it’s fair when people question my motives. It reminds me how much work I have left to do on myself.

And I do have work to do. I am a flawed human being. I am vain. I am proud. I seek approval. I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always. It is the treasure, wherein hopefully one day I may find my heart.

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