The Big Idea: Linda Nagata
For The Last Good Man, author Linda Nagata decided to take a risk with one of her characters, who is not the usual sort for the literary milieu Nagata has her story inhabit. Who is this character? And what were the repercussions of that risk?
For most of my career, I’ve written novels based only on what was intensely interesting to me at the time. In the early days it was nanotechnology, cryonics, the vastness and wonder of space, biotech, and artificial worlds. My settings would regularly shift between near future and far.
And then, abruptly, I abandoned science fiction and took a turn into pure fantasy.
“With magic?” one hard SF writer asked me in dismay.
So much for author branding. Clearly, market savvy was not part of my process.
But older and wiser, right?
Not exactly. I made another abrupt turn and dove into military science fiction with the Red trilogy—high-tech thrillers published by Saga Press in 2015. The books were well-reviewed. The first volume was a Nebula-award nominee and named as a Publishers Weekly best book.
It seemed logical to follow up on that seeming success so I resolved that for the first time I would approach my next book with a little market savvy. I would write another military-themed story, again with a near-future, high-tech setting. That way, I told myself, I’d have a better chance of holding on to the readers I’d gained with the trilogy because I’d be giving them something similar-but-different.
Next, it occurred to me that if I set the new book even closer to the present time, I might have a chance of pushing beyond the science fiction genre and making inroads into the military thriller market.
Hey, we can all dream.
The Red trilogy was written around a unit of US Army soldiers. Following that similar-but-different philosophy, I decided the new novel would involve a private military company, because that would allow for more freedom with the plot.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, this all still makes sense to me. But in selecting my protagonist, I embarked on a major gamble.
My version of brainstorming is to engage in swiftly typed stream-of-consciousness question-and-answer sessions. It’s the best way I know to develop ideas. I was brainstorming the possible identity of my main protagonist when I typed this:
Hey. Maybe she’s middle aged. (How to kill a novel in one bad move.)
Generally speaking, middle-aged women are not considered to be cool main characters of the sort that commonly inhabit techno-thrillers. So this was a perfect example of the creative and logical parts of my mind contending with one another. The logical part immediately recognized the risk, but the obstinate, defiant, creative part turned out to be in charge. Later on, in the same session, I typed:
Man, I like the retired-army-woman character.
I liked her—at that stage it was just the idea of her—because she was an atypical protagonist for the sort of book I wanted to write.
On Twitter there has often been talk of how middle-aged women don’t exist in science fiction. That’s an exaggeration, of course. Looking back at my own work, the protagonist of the second novel I ever had published was a woman of “mature years.” Still. I felt as if a gauntlet had been thrown down and I wanted to pick it up, accept the challenge, and write a riveting but realistic story about a can-do, older woman. I knew it was a market risk. Nevertheless, I thought I might persuade at least a few readers to go along with me, and besides, it’s fun to kick clichés to the side of the road.
So my “retired-army-woman character” stayed, becoming the Big Idea behind The Last Good Man.
Of course there is a lot more going on in this novel. The Last Good Man is a fast-paced, high-tech, military thriller that deals with autonomous weapons, big data, A.I., surveillance, remote warfare—and their effects on human relationships. But from the first day that the story truly started to take shape, I knew it would be centered on a woman. Specifically, True Brighton, retired US Army soldier, former helicopter pilot with frontline experience, a forty-nine-year-old mother of three who’s been happily married for three decades, and who is not at all ready to retire.
True works for a private military company and despite her husband’s misgivings, she is a valued part of the company’s hostage rescue team. She’s also realistic about the limits that aging will place on her. I’m reasonably athletic, so it was fun to foreshadow those limits, working from my own experience.
Middle age is an interesting time. There can be more freedom as children reach adulthood, but there is also a sense that time is getting short and that old age with all its limitations is just around the corner.
True feels the pressure of time, and she also carries an extra burden. She is haunted by the death of her oldest son, a soldier too, who was brutally killed in the line of duty. When a chance discovery during a hostage rescue mission indicates there is more to his death than she’s been told, a mother’s resolve comes over her to uncover the truth, regardless of the cost.
This was a challenging novel to write, I think in part because deep down, I doubted the marketability of it from the start. Somewhere along the way though, it became a novel I needed to write.
Still, my doubts were not misplaced. New York publishing houses didn’t know what to make of it. No one said specifically, Middle-aged mom? No way! But it was implied that marketing The Last Good Man would be a challenge that no one quite knew how to handle.
So The Last Good Man went out under my own imprint—and I’ll admit to sweet satisfaction when it earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
I hope you’ll give it a try. After all, it’s readers who ultimately decide if a Big Idea is “market savvy.”