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.

52 Comments on “The Big Idea: Chuck Wendig”

  1. Ooh, ooh, OOH! Gotta get/read this one! Been trying to get family off processed stuff for last couple years and yeah, we’re healthier and thinner but still, man that stuff is everywhere! And the way it shapes and bends society is scary!

  2. |What began as a joke became a book.

    Speaking of… hey Scalzi, how’s your ‘101 uses of a Spare Goat’ coming?

  3. Corn is strange and scary stuff, in how its become ubiquitous on our food supply and our culture.

    The scary thing is, that your take in UTES is only one possible exploration of that power. Reading this article has made me imagine an Unknown Armies/UF sort of arcane exploration of that power as opposed to your SFnal one.

  4. What began as a joke became a book

    So where’s our “Shadow War of the Night Dragons”, huh? Huh?

  5. David —

    Entirely possible that’s true.

    For me, I’m talking not just locally but also globally. And also, that report is from 2008.

    Here’s a report that talks about food prices more recently (and shows more moderate inflation that varies among vegetable or fruit types — apples being up 11% or so this year):

    Speaking from personal experience (i.e. anecdotal evidence), prices for fruits and vegetables around here are up a good bit — a slow climb over the last several years.

    — Chuck

  6. Huh. I was on board at ‘cornpunk’, and bought it at ‘hobo armies’. I will also admit that I read that the hyper rich lived in big floating *tortillas* which seemed weird, but would certainly be keeping with the theme.

  7. As someone who is stuck in the middle of Iowa where corn and big corporate agriculture are kings, this sounds like a must read. Added to my list.

  8. I think it’s an open question whether or not those other food prices SHOULD be up. Americans pay a smaller percentage of their incomes on food than most of the world and a lot of our food production is done using labor that may well not be being paid properly. But corn prices are for sure too low based on really questionable economic policies.

    Michael Pollen’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma” spends a lot of time talking about corn and its place in our lives. One of the things Chuck doesn’t mention is that those 500% increase in corn yields are a result of custom seed that relies on fertilizer. Fertilizer that requires petroleum to be made and petroleum to be taken to the farmers and usually petroleum to run the machines that apply the fertilizer. Never mind the petroleum to harvest the corn.

    So add all that up and this more abstract question about our need for oil to move ourselves around becomes pivotal in keeping the price of corn down. A low price that lowers the price of all the things made with it. After all, corn product is in so much of our food because it’s cheap. When it stops being cheap so does everything else.

  9. On the actual subject of the book, Amazon has it listed as one of the “borrow this for free” items if you have a Prime membership and a Kindle device. Only $3.99 if you’re not a Prime member.

  10. damn it. that sounds good. but series-worthy, which means I will fall in love with it and since Chuck Wendig is not my bitch, i will have to wait for the next one.

    I like to buy my series when the third one comes out.

  11. You WILL talk about this when you’re the guest at the PSFS meeting next week, won’t you?

  12. The pegasi on the bottom of the book cover look like a pair of hands holding a tablet (the horse heads are the thumbs).

    * Insert Kindle joke here *

    Also, there’s not going to be any Children of the Corn appearing are there? They’d be like the Orphans from The Warriors.

  13. I LOVE the fact that the Secret Garden of Real Food is called Boxelder. I won’t say why, as there’s a potential spoiler/secondary meaning there I don’t want to ruin for anyone who hasn’t grown up in the farmland, but if that name alone is any indication… this looks to be pretty clever, and was just added to my already sizable “to read” pile.

  14. Scott:

    Was just a joke, I apologize. Yes, salmon have teeth, and no they’re not feeding them buttery corn on the cob.

    — Chuck

  15. Don —

    Yeah, no joke. Corn being cheap is what makes a lot of the processed foods cheap — the government subsidies alone do a good job there.

    Actually, I was looking up stuff the other day on ‘why we sometimes pay farmers to not grow food’ and came across a great paragraph:

    “It is indisputable that farming is a difficult, risky business. Only in very recent history has society as a whole been insulated from the effects of drought and insect, disease and flood. America no longer starves when the wheat crop in Nebraska fails. Some of this is surely due to the help that small farms receive from the government, which keeps them in business. But the mechanism is flawed. The concentration of subsidies on grains, particularly corn and soybeans, and on acreage, gives money more to Monsanto and General Mills than to small vegetable farmers. This causes trade tensions and is part of the reason why junk food is so much cheaper than the healthier stuff. The food bought by the government goes into the school lunch program, so schools are required to feed kids a certain amount of cornmeal and cheese. Congress and the Department of Agriculture pay billions, and the result is unhealthy food for poor Americans and kids.”


    — c.

  16. Chuck this sounds amazing and kinda like I’m going to get even more pissed off at companies like Monsanto while I read it, but read it I shall.

    Coincidentally, corn has been on my mind because yeah, it’s in everything, and is one of the many reasons I avoid packaged foods. We feed corn to cattle to fatten them up. Why do we think the same thing wouldn’t to happen to us when WE eat it? Yanno?

  17. This one’ll go on my To Be Read list.

    I found “King Corn” creepy, too.

    But I’m still looking forward to some fresh Ohio sweet corn soon! :-)

  18. Sometimes the Big Idea isn’t really a Big Idea at all, to the extent that one wonders whether the author even got the Big Idea of Big Ideas.

    This is not one of those times.

  19. I know that Big Food is the villain at the moment, but let’s remember that until recently (eg. the 1970s) the great food challenge for a large number of people was to get *enough* food, not too much. That’s still the big challenge for lots of folks globally. The provision of large amounts of calories at low cost was a massive benefit, not evil, in that situation.

    I haven’t done the research, but I’m pretty sure that I can guarantee you that substantially more people have died of starvation than of obesity.

  20. @DAVID It is true that more people have died of starvation than obesity. It’s not true , though, that the two are mutually exclusive. One of major problems in places like India, where the country has pursued policies aimed at getting everyone enough calories is that large numbers of children are overweight and yet developmentally delayed because their food lacks vital nutrients.

    The relationship between US agribusiness and the global poor is somewhat complicated; higher yields are obviously a good thing, but the trade policies the US has adopted under heavy agribusiness lobbying have seriously hurt poor farmers in other countries. GMO’s look to exacerbate these trends with both higher yields and lower trade policies.

  21. @Aunti Laura, as a friend of Chuck and many other authors, did you know that if you don’t buy the first book, sometimes what might have been a series never moves to a second book? The current YA trilogy exhaustion means that, for many of us, they’re buying one book in a planned trilogy and waiting for good returns before buying more. I’ll definitely be buying this one soon to support Chuck, and with that Kindle price, I can’t afford not to. :)

  22. Lurkertype:

    It’s a good point, but please understand, I am not my publisher. I do not control how the book gets published, unlike with my self-published material. My overall bibliography is available across a wide variety of platforms and in various print formats.

    (This book is also available in print.)

    Hope that answers your concern.

    — Chuck

  23. If it was the publisher’s decision, then of course it’s not your fault. I didn’t think you were the sort of guy to get all exclusive and snooty, so I was just surprised. Cuz my .epub of Blackbirds is right here, pat pat.

  24. though, that the two are mutually exclusive

    I don’t think I said that they were. I would note, however, that “developmentally delayed” is not the same thing as “dead.”

  25. On the one hand, the food production and distribution system works the way it does in no small part because of overpopulation. Every overextended civilization in history has become perilously dependent on whatever staple was easiest to grow at that time in that environment, eventually to its detriment. Single-crop farming is not a new problem. Petrol and GMOs can only go so far before biophysics takes over and calorie yields plummet due to peak oil and a smorgasbord of environmental mismanagement. We’re snacking on borrowed time.

    On the other hand, the monied players in agribusiness have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo for as long as they can, which means a harder failure when continental carrying capacity begins to shrink.

    On the gripping hand, the religion that is hipsterism has essentially turned “organic” food and derivatives into its own vast empty-handed marketing campaign rife with misinformation, fear-mongering and manipulating statistics to lie in order to cultivate fear in the panic-prone masses so that they’ll literally invest with blind faith in whatever bullshit they’re sold. Fear is the mind-killer, and reason is as antithetical to advertising as to propaganda.

    Which is not to say that this isn’t a topical and interesting Big Idea. The description vaguely reminds me of The Currents of Space by Issac Asimov. And while some of it sounds outlandish (the Obligation?), it is after all fiction, and -punks job is to be outlandish.

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

    How do you figure that?

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

    Of course it does. All organisms on Earth share a common ancestry. If you mean some has migrated through lateral gene transfer, I can’t say I’d be too surprised by that.

  26. @Gulliver:

    The “corn genes” thing — data here:

    Organic is such a tricky topic. Critics claim it isn’t healthier or doesn’t taste better. Some procurers of organic food note that it’s more often about a lack of chemicals in the food itself (like, reduced pesticide). A lot of organic products are sold through food super-conglomerates but under little boutique names, and so folks don’t realize that the legal definition of what can comfortably be called “organic” is in the hands of lobbyists and our esteemed friends in the government at large. Then folks buy local thinking that it has to be organic, but it most certainly doesn’t.

    So, yeah, organic is tricky.

    It’s still good *some* people are starting to think about the food they put in their mouths, of course; shame they’re sometimes mistaken about what that is or means.

    I don’t think it’s so easy to rest on the shoulders of hipsterism, though. It’s a mix of genuine interest, grocery trends, grocery trend manipulation, fiddly legal definitions and regulations, privileged middle-class or upper-middle-class buyers, and, yes, hipsters.

    — Chuck

  27. Thanks for the link! I went back and read the line I quoted from your original post. When I first read it I thought it said Corn has almost doubled the number of genes that humans have. Oh what a difference one little extra letter can make, not unlike genomics :)

    I put organic in scare quotes because it’s become something of a magic talisman to ward off bad chemicals…or something like that. As a certified health freak and an avid amateur cook, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes foods labeled organic really are healthier. Other times it means it’s just marked up for Whole Paycheck. What grinds my mills is how few people ever bother to question that label and ask whether it was earned. That those are the same people who think “chemicals” are out to kill them and that eating “organic” and stuffing themselves full overpriced, overdosed, superfluous dietary “supplements” (but heavens forbid anyone ever proscribe them something the FDA tested) that their liver then has to clean out somehow transforms them into more wholesome people with prettier, smarter, stronger children makes we want to throw an organic chemistry textbook at their heads. Alas, marketers will always push the most impulsive buttons on the emotional spectrum, and fear, anger and ignorance are old old standbys.

    Sorry, frustrating topic for me. Diggin’ the cover art, BTW.

  28. Since it is available to “borrow for free” for Amazon Prime, that’s my first impulse. But–I’ve wondered about that–what does the author get out of that? Less than a normal Kindle sale? The same?

  29. Well, bugger all. I’d love to buy this, because it sounds awesome, but I’m sad to see it’s not available electronically in any format but for the Kindle. :( (And my shelves full of print books are already overflowing. Which is why I want it electronically!)

  30. Michael Ansara has died at 91. He is best known for Star Trek, but also did an excellent turn as a soldier from a dystopian future on the original Outer Limits; if you haven’t seen that, I bet you’ll enjoy it.

  31. I find that local stuff tastes better, organic or not. Except for milk — it’s amazing how much better organic milk tastes than regular, and it doesn’t upset my intestines. For years I thought I was lactose intolerant, but when I switched to organic milk, I could chug as much as I wanted. Is it that the cows eat more grass and less corn? Is it fewer antibiotics? I don’t know, and I don’t care. It’s the only thing that I’ll always buy the organic version of. I wash my pesticide-laden fruits and veggies — because I can’t possibly afford to buy all-organic fruits and veggies, and more plants are better than less.

    Oh, wait, the second thing I get is organic fresh free-range local turkey for Thanksgiving. Whoa boy, does it cost a LOT more than your frozen Butterball, but it is so tasty and it’s only a once a year splurge. The rest of the year, I eat mass-market turkey like everyone else.

    @whoever said “tortillas” instead of “flotillas” — perfectly natural misreading, and funny to boot! Maybe the flotillas could be fashioned to resemble floating tortillas!

    @Chuck Wendig: you realize now I am totally craving tortilla chips and Fritos. I will try to deflect this by eating fresh local corn on the cob, $0.25/ear. Possibly as a side dish to salmon. NOM NOM NOM.

  32. @Lurkertype — Yeah, Pennsylvania has a constant fight on its hands — small dairies who want to put out raw milk versus “Big Dairy” who fights it (now with the help of our governor). At present you can get raw milk from certain protected and regulated dairies, and it’s pretty great — I can’t speak to the purported health benefits, but it tastes awesome.

  33. @Angela — Aye, at present, it is a Kindle exclusive. That said, were you to find a way to break any DRM on it and read it at your leisure on an e-reader of your choosing, I would happily tell no one.

  34. @daneyul: I do get compensated there; please enjoy the book in whatever fashion you so desire. Just hope you like it, thanks!

  35. @Gulliver — dude, no joke. Food and food science is an area laden with scare tactics and misinformation which only makes finding out the (still sometimes scary) truth harder.

    At the end of the day, I’m happy I wrote a book that addresses some of this stuff and, at the very least, tells a story where teenagers can get an adventuresome thrill from eating fruits and vegetables. :)

  36. It is good that more people are thinking about what they eat. And it was unfair to rag on hipsters. They just happen, like Fox News, to be the most salient proxy for something that bothers me.

    I just wish they’d be half as skeptical about foods labeled organic as they are about heavily processed foods. And I wish more would think globally about the food system and how it effects people outside their region and income bracket. I like free-range chicken. I eat less meat so I can east healthier, tastier meat. But that’s not an option for most people on this planet who already eat less meat, and it’s becoming less so daily. I don’t feel bad about eating it; it’s how I choose to spend the money I allocate for food. But my solution for world hunger isn’t to try and encourage everyone else to imitate my choices.

  37. Ahh, corn, the backbone of big agri-business. And we still *subsidize* the ^%$#’s. Serves us right for holding the first primaries in f’ing Iowa…

  38. I love this particular “Big Idea”. Here’s hoping the books are a rousing success.

  39. Just bought the book. I’ve been waiting for it to come out ever since I first heard about and, of course, managed to miss the release day. I am made of Forgetful.

  40. Chuck, you got your title wrong by one word. It’s not “Empyrean”, it’s “Elysium.” Here’s your description:

    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.

    Here’s a description of the new movie “Elysium” taken from IMDB:

    Set in the year 2154, where the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth,

    Hmmm. ;)

    But seriously…I really liked “Blackbirds” and I’ll pick this one up too.

  41. @Beej:

    I totally noticed that when I first heard about Elysium some months ago — I actually got worried, though having seen the trailers I’m relieved that while the two stories share some core concepts, they look wildly different.

    — c.

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