Speaking of eBooks, Subterranean is now directly selling ebooks, so you can get them directly from the publisher. The first batch of eBooks available through SubPress’ story includes The Dispatcher. Here’s the full list of the first set of eBooks. So while you’re pre-ordering the hardcover of Obituary, you can pick up the eBook of The Dispatcher to keep you company. Convenient!
So, nine years ago this week, I switched the Whatever blog over to the WordPress VIP service, after months of access difficulties with both previous blogging software and previous providers. And in the nine years since switching over to WP VIP, the amount of time the site’s been down can be counted in minutes, and on my hands. That’s some pretty great uptime. Since the time I switched over, WordPress has also expanded the types of hosting services it offers bloggers and sites, so even if you don’t need the full VIP service, there’s probably a level of service that could work for you, and your site’s needs.
In almost a decade, WordPress has never asked me to make an endorsement of their software or services, but every year near the anniversary of my switch I make an endorsement anyway. I do it for the simple reason that WordPress just plain works, and it works for me, and I’ve never regretted using their service or software. There’s not much in the world I can say that about. If you’re looking to create and host your own site, I hope you’ll give WordPress a look. I’m one happy customer.
The phrase “science fiction” has two relevant parts to it. In Blockbuster Science, author David Siegel Bernstein delves into the science of the fiction, and separates out the fantasy of the genre from the fact. Here he is to tell you process of his exploration.
DAVID SIEGEL BERNSTEIN:
Science fiction is driven by fear or hope, while science is driven by necessity or curiosity. The overlap between their motivations is huge. Science fiction has always had the power to inspire scientific and technological breakthroughs that change our world. Companies used words like “robot” and “android” after they were popularized in fiction, and today’s STEM experts often say they were first inspired by stories they read when they were young.
To me, what could be a more fun way to explore the world of science than through its use—accurately or fantastically—in science fiction entertainment: movies, books, and TV shows? This question is the big idea behind Blockbuster Science: The Real Science in Science Fiction. So as you may imagine, this book was born from my geeking love for both science and science fiction. This made it incredibly fun to write. How could it not be? I got to explain the science behind popular narrative concepts like time travel, AI, genetic mutation, asteroids, cyborgs, alien invasion, the zombie apocalypse, and more. I also created lists of songs (consider it science and science fiction mood music), movies, and books that highlight chapter topics.
The entire experience of writing this book was different from my fiction writing, where I’m mostly locked inside my head. Blockbuster Science was much more an external journey. I scoured research journals, textbooks, newspapers, and magazines to learn what is old news, where cutting edge research is heading, and new outcomes possible from widely accepted theories. I made my best attempt to explain key scientific principles in jargon-free, easy-to-understand narratives. For the creators of hard-science fiction, I hope this book draws the boundaries that cannot be broken and teases those that are begging to be broken with the right what-if.
I like questions—even ones for which we have no answers, yet. I made sure to season in a lot of question marks throughout each chapter. A lot of recent discoveries have led to questions that scientists never thought to ask before. Curiosity about our world drives fiction authors and filmmakers to explore the realm of possibility. Besides, isn’t science itself all about asking questions? Questions such as, what caused the big bang? Consider how cause comes before effect. In the standard big bang theory, as described in the book, there was no before (i.e., time) before the big bang. Think of searching for the cause of the big bang as being like searching for north while standing at the North Pole. Don’t worry, I address on a few of the newer theories that may provide you with a more satisfying theoretical answer to that question.
Every chapter of Blockbuster Science covers a different topic. Time and space, which are so interwoven that they are cleverly coupled under the moniker spacetime, and quantum mechanics start the learning process. The weirdness of string theory, the origin story called the big bang, parallel worlds, black holes, evolution and biology provide truckloads of building blocks for fictional worlds. Interconnectivity, AI, extraterrestrial life, interstellar communication, energy sources and rocketry buttress those building blocks. Substance, materials, invisibility, the holographic universe and technology spin up more possibilities until everything ends in the chapter that covers the end of everything (the sun, the universe…everything). Is it really the end? I offer up a few “workarounds” based on the science described throughout the book, but I warn you, it will sound like science fiction.
Blockbuster Science isn’t only for science fiction fans who want to know more about the science behind the plot. This book is for the curious—anyone who wants to know more about the natural world and the universe of which they are a part. It’s for the science geek in everyone, especially those who smirk at jokes such as: Schrödinger’s cat walks into a bar, and doesn’t. My kind of people!
Writing alternate history is fun and interesting, but here’s another interesting thing: Every day, we’re making a history too. What happens when the latter crashes into the former? Author Felicity Banks has some thoughts on that and how it affects her new novel The Antipodean Queen.
Every time there’s a crocodile attack in Australia’s Northern Territory, tourist rates go up.
That should probably make me fear for humanity, but it just makes me smile. We Australians often laugh at over-the-top depictions of our deadly animals and even deadlier landscapes. I’m a city girl myself, so I know how silly it all is.
Okay, so there was that one time my grandma killed a snake. And the kangaroos hopping around the major roads at night are a bit of a hazard. Sure, there’s that one playground I always check for brown snakes these days. The annual bushfires aren’t great, either. Yes, my backyard has a little bit of a red-back spider breeding program. And it’s a teensy bit creepy that huntsman spiders are so common that the ones living inside have a shared nickname (Fred).
In Australia, nature is constantly reminding us that humans aren’t as impressive as we like to think―and we love it.
I’m quite patriotic, for an Australian. Ever since Europeans invaded, Australian culture has been a curious mixture of British, American, and other cultures. Our manners are more straightforward, and our suspicion of authority runs deep. Most Australians are uneasy with national pride, and not just because it’s a favourite tool of racists. Sometimes we do awful things to try to keep ourselves safe from a perceived threat―and we know it.
A love for one’s country is a curious and complicated thing, and the more history I learn the more complicated it gets. How can I respect the unique prehistory of Australia when my university sprawls cheerfully over a sacred site? How can I be proud of my country when the white middle-class life I know was built on attempted genocide? How can I enjoy Australia’s excellent lamb when I know that flocks of imported sheep permanently devastated vast areas of once-productive land?
These are the questions that flutter around the edges of my writing, dipping into a half-sentence here or there as I write a story that looks like it’s all fun and fantasy.
Here’s the thing: I write with hope, and magic, and optimism. Sometimes it’s not easy, and sometimes it feels closer to outright lies than fiction. But if I can write something better than real life, I believe the power of my imagination can haul that version of Australia closer to reality. If I didn’t believe that, I couldn’t go on.
I had my Big Idea of writing Australian alternate history back in 2011, not knowing then that important parts of my history are only now coming to light. As I began to read more deeply about Australia’s colonial era―smiling sometimes, and crying often―I found a few things to be proud of. Part of Australia granted the right for women to vote in state elections in 1861. Back in 2011 I had a vague notion that the second book of the trilogy would be something to do with women’s suffrage. The question was how to make it relevant to modern readers. Surely any character who wanted to silence the political voice of half the population could only come across as cartoonishly evil.
Speaking of cartoonishly evil. . .
Right now, in Australia, our government is risking the safety of thousands of vulnerable LGBTIQ people by making the entire population take an expensive and non-binding postal plebiscite on gay marriage, even though it’s already well established that the majority of Australians support equal rights. I’m bisexual but married to a man, and cushioned by the appearance of heterosexuality. In recent weeks even I have felt the sting of half-heard conversations, advertisements that would usually be classified as hate speech, and an email telling me that as a Christian I should vote ‘No’.
So here I am writing a fantastical version of history while being haunted by the uncomfortable knowledge that real-world history is still being written. I’m heartbroken over the real mistakes of both the past and the present, but I choose to believe that my country can grow to better deserve the love I give it.
Hey! It’s Elizabeth Bear! She’s my Hugo-winning pal! She’s awesome! And she has a new fantasy series beginning with The Stone in the Skull! That’s aweseome! She’s here to tell you about it! And that’s awesome too!
I’m here under false pretenses.
Let’s just get that out of the way. I’m here under false pretenses, because I’m not sure that The Stone in the Skull actually has a single unifying big idea so much as it’s stitched together out of a patchwork tapestry of little ideas that all play off one another, and the story arises from the consequences of those decisions. It is actually natural that it would work that way, because it’s my attempt to meld two of the great traditions of fantasy into one whole. This is a story with sword-and-sorcery roots, and an epic destination.
There are four protagonists in The Stone in the Skull. They include (in the order their points of view arise), the Dead Man, raised from infancy to be the personal guard of a Caliph long since deposed; Mrithuri, the young and brilliant but inexperienced rajni of a small but wealthy kingdom that was once the capitol of a now-fractured empire; the Gage, a brass automaton constructed by a wizard who replaced each piece of a living body with metal, in turn; and Sayeh, the widowed middle-aged rajni of another and poorer empire-remnant, ruling as regent for her young son and desperately trying to cling to power for his sake.
These are disparate people, set in motion by circumstance–or manipulation–faced with questions both of natural catastrophe and political disaster. But they have something in common, and so does the fractured political structure that they’re moving through: they’ve all in the process of facing and dealing with the aftermath of disaster, and the necessity of putting together something new out of the broken fragments of the old. A mosaic. A resurrection.
Which is why I say that the Big Idea of The Stone in the Skull is a lot of little ideas stitched together, I suppose. Because that’s how things–big things, things too huge for one person to do by themself–get built, isn’t it? One piece at a time. One mismatched fragment stitched to another. One fragment in the mosaic, and then another, and then another.
The Big Idea of this book is that you can build big things out of little things–small actions, small choices, small loyalties.
Small people in a big world, with difficult pasts–but all of them, rising up out of some shattering. All of them, in search of a future, and hope.
(For those who need it, a warning: I’m talking rape and sexual assault here today.)
First, the latest on Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual abuse of women, from the New Yorker and the New York Times. There are more news stories out there — lots more — but those two cover a lot of ground on the present state of things.
And now, some thoughts, not necessarily in order of importance.
1. Harvey Weinstein is by all indications a rapist and general piece of shit. Just to put that out there up front, so there’s no confusion. He deserved to be fired by his company (as he was) and should almost certainly be in jail.
2. He’s also solely responsible for his own actions. Which apparently comes as a shock to the scads of people who, when the news got out, started wanting to blame prominent film people who knew him (particularly women) for their silence, and the people who worked for him for not taking a stand against him. I’ll get to both of these things in a minute, but look: Harvey Weinstein intentionally and systematically sexually abused women, sexually harassed women and targeted them for sexual coercion. He promised professional advancement and threatened professional oblivion in order to compel sexual compliance, and bribed and threatened women for their silence. And he did this, it appears, over three decades. He owns it.
3. But what about the systematic problem of harassment in the film and television industry, you ask? Well: Yes, it is there, and yes, Weinstein both participated in it and furthered it for his own pleasure, and yes, it needs to be addressed and rooted out, and anyone who sexually coerces another person should be punted hard on their ass. But let’s be clear that Weinstein was not compelled against his will to participate in it and to further it. He did that on his own. He was the author of his own moral story, and his moral story sucks. Acknowledging that Weinstein is solely responsible for his own choices neither ignores or exculpates the systematic issues of the entertainment industry. He raped and assaulted women. He owns that.
4. While we’re on the topic, let’s dispense of some other nonsense. Weinstein tried to imply that coming of age in the 60s and 70s meant his moral compass was pointed a few degrees off true. Well, that’s bullshit; I know lots of people who came of age in the 60s and 70s who know perfectly well sexual coercion and rape is immoral. Pretty much all of them, in fact. Donna Karan (who is apparently one of the few who does not) just made news by sort of airily suggesting that issue with Weinstein was more that he was a symbol of various sexual issues than a real live man who raped and sexually assaulted numerous women, and well. No. It’s possible he is both, but any story framing that attempts to keep his personal actions from being front and center is crap. He wouldn’t be a synecdoche for these issues if he wasn’t a coercive assaulting piece of shit. Any explanation of Weinstein’s behavior that does not center his own choices is a bad one. He’s a grown man. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he was doing was wrong. He did it anyway.
5. What about the staff at Miramax and The Weinstein Company who knew — or at least could guess — what their boss was up to but did nothing about it? I’m not here to excuse them, and we are all responsible for our moral choices. I am also aware it’s easy to judge when your career and income aren’t riding on the necessity of not looking too closely at what your boss is doing. Bear in mind that the film industry is the industry that perfected blacklisting — one day you’re fine and the next no one’s returning your calls. At the height of his powers there’s no doubt Harvey Weinstein could make working in the industry very difficult, and the further down the food chain you were, the more difficult he could make it.
I am fortunate that when I was working for others, I never had a boss whose moral baseline (as far as I knew) substantially conflicted with mine. I was never put in a position of having to cover for, or look away from, a bosses’ actions. I would like to think that if I had been, I would have done the correct thing, even in the face of losing my job. I’d like to think that, but it’s easy to think about what you would do when you’ve never been confronted by that actual decision point.
Again, I’m not here to excuse the moral choices Weinstein’s employees made — or didn’t make — and they’ll have the burden of their choices for the rest of their professional lives. I do know that the burden of their choices was placed on them because Weinstein chose to sexually assault and coerce women. His actions had consequences beyond him.
6. As for the issue of very famous people apparently not knowing what Weinstein was up to, I’m going to tell you a story. In my line of work there was an editor named Jim Frenkel, who worked for Tor, my publisher, and who as it turned out was a harassing piece of shit. It also turned out that he was very good at hiding that fact from his bosses and fellow editors and from authors, like me, who did not fit the profile of the sort of person he liked to harass. I was male, I was already published and successful, and I suspect Frenkel knew I would talk if I found out anything. I found out because Frenkel finally harassed a person who was more than happy to talk out loud about it, and who had people who would amplify her voice. Lots of people lateral to or above his status were shocked. Lots of women below his status asked how the hell the rest of us did not know.
We didn’t know because we didn’t see it personally; we didn’t know because the “whisper network” didn’t reach us. And why didn’t it reach us? Maybe because the women were scared about what Frenkel could do to their careers. Maybe because they assumed some of us already knew and were doing nothing about it. Maybe because some of us were men and the women didn’t want to have to deal with the emotional burden of trying to make us believe harassment was a real thing. “Whisper networks” can be useful, but as my friend Naomi Kritzer noted on Twitter, they’re full of holes. And more than that: They propagate downward and attenuate upward. After a certain height, you don’t hear many whispers.
No one knows a food chain better than a predator. Harvey Weinstein was not going to prey near or above his station; doing so served none of his purposes and represented risk. He wasn’t going to prey on (say) Meryl Streep or Hillary Clinton, and the chances that someone he would prey on would be able to tell either of those two women — or other women of a similar stature, or men on the same level — was pretty slim, and what reaches someone at that level is often spotty and inconclusive, for all the reasons noted above.
(Please note I’m not originating these observations; check out this Twitter thread yesterday from a woman screenwriter which makes basically the same point. It’s not the only thread like it out there.)
This doesn’t mean no people above certain level didn’t know. But it does mean predators are good at hiding their tracks, or at least making their path confusing. It also means that predators know how to leverage their power — and in the case of Harvey Weinstein, he was very powerful indeed.
7. Anyone who voted for an admitted sexual predator for president who is now blaming women for not knowing or not confronting Harvey Weinstein: Sit the fuck down. You don’t even have the veil of plausible deniability to cover the fact that you helped make Mr. “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy” the President of the United States. You knew and you didn’t care. To go after Clinton because she knew Weinstein after you cast your vote for Trump, well, shit. Got a Bible passage for you, son.
And, not that I’ve seen it, but in case it’s out there (and it probably is, somewhere): Anyone defending Weinstein on the basis of his ostensible politics or because of the great art he’s helped produce, you can sit the fuck down, too. The correct politics and the ability to spot good films and filmmakers isn’t a pass for being sexually coercive and a rapist. I’m happy to cede this piece of shit human has very fine taste in cinema. He’s still a piece of shit human.
8. I’m all for condemning both Trump and Weinstein, and any other man who uses his power to sexually coerce other people. Weinstein is a liberal and Trump is, well, whatever the hell he is (white supremacist authoritarian populist masquerading as a conservative), but both are men who have decided that they get to force themselves on women, and women should be happy or at least quiet about it. There’s no political angle to it; or more accurately, certain men of any political stripe seem happy to be predatory pieces of shit. Nor should there be any political separation to the solution to this problem: Kick all that shit to the curb.
9. And of course some of the backlash from this is that some men in corporate settings are now avoiding women, which makes me want to smack my head and wonder what the fuck is wrong with my sex. The solution is not to cut women out of your professional life, you assholes. The solution is to fix your goddamned corporate culture and root out the sexual harassers and predators so neither you nor any woman have to worry that a closed-door meeting means a quick two-step to the HR department. Redlining women from professional advancement because you don’t know how else to deal with the issues of harassment and predation means you are the problem, not them.
10. Harvey Weinstein is a piece of shit, but he’s not the only piece of shit out there. The film/TV industry has a sexism and harassment problem, but it’s not the only industry with a sexism and harassment problem. Today is Weinstein’s moment in the barrel, and he should be shot to the moon for it. But there’s a whole line of dudes waiting after him, starting from the president and working on down.
All of which you would know already, my dudes, if you listened to women and believed them. I’ve been working on that one myself a lot recently. I’m not perfect, but I like to think I’m getting better at it. We’ll see. Maybe you should make an effort at it too, if you’ve not done so already.
When Matt Harry set down to write his novel Sorcery for Beginners, he undertook a journey that, as it turns out, had a parallel in the book he was writing. Here he is to tell you about that journey.
This whole thing started because of Einstein.
I know the date exactly, because I take notes on such things. It was 21 April, 2013. I was looking for a little light reading material during my lunch. I scanned the bookshelf, picking up my wife’s copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Einstein. By the time I finished my sandwich, I decided I must somehow be more than a complete idiot. Even with the helpful explanations and jokey sidebars, I still couldn’t grasp the Theory of Relativity.
But flipping through the book gave me an idea. If they can explain something as difficult as theoretical physics to people, I mused, what if they could do the same thing for something impossible? Something that doesn’t exist, like Monster Hunting, or Time Travel, or Magic?
Magic. The concept hit me like a falling apple approaching the speed of light. Enchantments for Morons…Spell Casting for Dummies…okay, so the title doesn’t work yet, but a how-to guide that explains how to do magic, real magic? There’s something there.
I spent the next couple of days fleshing out the story — a lazy teenage protagonist whose parents had just divorced, a mysterious bookseller, a group of bullies tormenting our hero. I also changed the title to Sorcery for Beginners, realizing that ‘Dummies’ might not be the best way to address a potential audience. High on the fumes of a new idea, I pitched the concept to my then-agent—as a screenplay.
“Love it,” he said with the tooth-cracking enthusiasm only an agent can muster. “Great idea, fantastic, just one problem — no one’s buying spec screenplays right now. If you told me this was based on a book, it’d be an immediate sale, six figures easy. But since there’s no book …”
I was frustrated. I’d been repped in Hollywood for a few years at this point. I’d had a couple scripts optioned; an indie movie I wrote had been made and gotten distribution; I’d written projects for some big producers, but nothing had taken off. I was still working a day job and writing on nights and weekends. The time had come to try something new.
So it’d be an immediate sale if it was based on a book, huh? I fumed as I hacked my way back home through LA traffic. Guess I’ll just have to write Sorcery for Beginners as a book and sell it, then. Easy!
This wasn’t completely unknown territory for me. I had actually started as a prose writer, way back when I was a middle-grader myself. My first ‘novel,’ The Great Girl Chase, was written in seventh grade. The title alone should tell you how terrible it was.
Then I focused on plays for awhile, then journalism, then in my sophomore year at Ohio University I took a film analysis class and got hooked. For the next ten years I wrote screenplays and made movies. I had some minor success (see above), but when a good friend of mine got a three-book publishing deal, it inspired me to take up prose again.
I began outlining my first real novel in 2008. I thought it’d be fun to do something in the vein of the books I’d loved as a kid, like The Chronicles of Narnia and The Dark is Rising sequence. Unfortunately, while my finished novel had some cool details and world building, it ultimately wasn’t good enough to get me a lit agent.
But Sorcery would be different, I vowed to myself as my car crept past the Hollywood Bowl at 0.1 mph. I was a better writer now than I was five years ago, and I was more excited about this idea than I’d been about anything in a while. How hard could it be to crank out another book? I threw myself into it with the ferocity of a kirin, and two months later I had a first draft. I sent that off to lit agents, got multiple offers of representation, and a big publishing deal soon followed.
Just kidding. My first draft was only okay. And I had learned enough by that point to realize it was only okay. I sent it to my good friend, got notes, and I started to rewrite. I beefed up the secondary characters. I added more obstacles to the plot. Halfway through the third draft I realized it would be kind of fun if my story about kids finding a magical help guide was formatted like a help guide. That required adding about 15 thousand words of sidebars, spell pages, and fake magical history. Cue additional rewriting.
Somewhere during draft seven, I realized that what I was going through with this book was a perfect theme for the story. We all want things to be easy, but doing anything of value takes work. Owen, the main character, wants sorcery to fix everything in his life. But he needs to realize that only he can change his circumstances, and doing that takes effort. This led to more rewriting.
Finally, I had a draft I felt pretty good about. I queried agents and got a lot of good responses, even a couple offers of representation. Ultimately I went with Inkshares because the CEO Adam Gomolin really believed in this book and vowed to push it as hard as he could.
But even then, the work wasn’t done. My editor at Inkshares suggested increasing the presence of the bad guy Euclideans (who didn’t even have a name until the sixth draft). That required more rewriting, adding a few scenes, and putting a whole new chapter in the beginning. Even the captions for the illustrations went through some finessing. (I should stress here that all of this contributed to making a much better novel, and I’m incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me through the process.)
Now, four-and-a-half years, 11 drafts, many tossed pages later, my debut novel Sorcery for Beginners is complete. And I’ve learned the same lesson as Owen: that no matter how easy something seems, doing anything of value takes work.
Really, that’s it. If you send me story ideas, I immediately dump them unread into the trash, and I won’t acknowledge I’ve received them.
The reasons should be obvious, but in case they aren’t:
1. I have lots of ideas of my own, thanks;
2. Seriously, I have more ideas for books and stories than I will ever actually be able to write;
3. We live in a litigious society what I don’t want to be doing is spending time or money defending myself from some random person claiming I took their story idea, and yes, there’s past precedent of people sending writers ideas and then getting angry when they’re used.
Also, bluntly, I don’t need help. I’m pretty good with this whole “think up cool concepts to write stories about” thing. By all indications, it seems to be working out for me.
I suspect the vast majority of the people who want to give me story ideas mean it as a compliment, as in, “Hey, you could do this better than I could.” A rather smaller number mean it kind of in the other way, as in, “you’re not very good at this writing thing so I will graciously deign to help you out.” And some people mean it in another way, as in “the tin foil hat slipped and the voices are telling me to send this to you.” Regardless of the reason these ideas are sent, however, they all end up in the same place: The trash, unread and unacknowledged.
So might as well just not send them to me at all. Keep them! And maybe one day write them yourself. And then maybe I’ll read them, and go, “Hey, that was a cool idea. Glad I got to read it.”
There were deer in our yard this evening and then suddenly there weren’t, because our neighbor’s dog decided that he really needed to chase them. I managed to get a couple of pictures of them as they sprinted away — this was one of the less blurry ones. Those deer move fast.
In other news, hey, rural and suburban North America, it’s now deer migratory season. Be careful driving out there. Deer are cute but they’ll wreck the crap out of your car if you hit one.
One of the things we and our visitors did this weekend was pick up pumpkins for ourselves and our kids. They got pumpkins. I found this magnificent gourd and decided to call it mine. It is… wartlicious.
For An Unkindness of Magicians, author Kat Howard decided to go about things… well, just a little differently. She’s here to tell you why doing it that way made sense for her novel.
This is a book that began with an ending.
Not the ending of the book–No, that took me a number of drafts to actually know. But the ending of magic.
It’s a word so archaic that I had to add it to my computer’s dictionary. I don’t even precisely remember where I first read it – maybe it flashed across my twitter stream or maybe it popped into my inbox as a word-a-day offering. It’s a kind of disenchantment, done by a countercharm. Magic to end magic. I read that definition, and my hair stood on end, and I knew I had a book. A book about an ending of magic.
Except a book isn’t only an ending. I needed a why: why would magic be ending? I thought about what I knew about magic, about what made magic real and true, about what made magic matter. Magic, I thought, should take work. It should have consequences. To paraphrase Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, magic should not be something you can get by tearing out someone else’s liver.
An Unkindness of Magicians is about what happens when magic is paid for with someone else’s liver.
And not just by one person. By an entire society, for multiple generations.
There is, of course, more to it than that, because even with the why, An Unkindness of Magicians is about more than simply an ending of magic, more than the abomination of magic that led up to the events of the story. People tend to not be happy when their power is taken away, particularly when they see that power as something they deserve.
An Unkindness of Magicians is about many kinds of endings:
Of friendship, when you discover a person is not who you thought they were.
Of familial bonds, when you learn that who you are matters less than what you could be used for.
Of a place that is a prison made sentient.
Of a terror that has stalked a community and of a system that simply looks the other way.
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but a cover can still tell you a lot about a book. When I saw the Quillifercover, I felt like I already knew more than a little bit about Walter Jon Williams‘ titular character. In his Big Idea, Williams confirms my suspicions. Read on to find out who Williams has imagined, and how he fits his illustration.
WALTER JON WILLIAMS:
Ideas for my fiction never arrive from a single place. Some come from my reading an article in a newspaper or magazine; some come from a brainstorming session with friends. Some ideas come from reading other fiction– either I think to myself, “I believe I have discovered an aspect of your premise that you have not considered,” or maybe I get annoyed and think, “Oh my god, I can do better than that!”
Two novels came from dreams– one a brief flash lasting only seconds but setting into motion the first of a series of tumbling imagination-dominoes that resulted, later that day, in the complete plot of a novel. The other novel, Implied Spaces, was the result of the only lucid dream I’ve had in my life– I dreamed the first 100 pages or so, and then awoke with a pretty good sense of where the rest of the book was going.
Quillifer came about because I took a pleasant autumn walk. I live in the Rio Grande Valley, a strip of bright green drawn down the brown, arid expanse of New Mexico. My neighbors are ranchers and farmers, and their fields are irrigated with water drawn from the river. A walk along the irrigation ditches is a perfect way of clearing the mind, ambling along while enjoying the trees, green fields, horses, cattle, and the frogs and fowl that live in the water.
So one afternoon, about ten years ago, I set out for a walk while listening to an audio book of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Shakespeare. And by the time I came home, some ninety minutes later, I came back with six books plotted and the name of my protagonist.
I have no idea how any of that came about: there must have been something about the day, the trees and the fields and the frogs, and my receptive mind, and Shakespeare, and maybe Peter Ackroyd. But one thought was foremost in my mind as I recorded my ideas later that day.
If I write this, it will be a lot of fun.
There were a number of good reasons why I couldn’t have that fun right away. I was contracted to write some other books before I could start anything new. Then Ralph Vicinanza, my long-time literary agent, passed away, and I had to look for a new agent.
But more importantly, I was known as a science fiction writer, and the six books of the Quillifer series were secondary-world fantasy. (Now I thought that my novel Metropolitan was high fantasy, but readers disagreed– they seemed to think it was some kind of weird science fiction.)
I could toss off one fantasy novel, maybe, without endangering my career as an SF writer– but leaving my primary career for five or six years, while I wrote in another field, would probably put a stake through my SF career, and I wasn’t entirely ready to risk that.
But by and by, I succumbed to the temptation of having a lot of fun, and I started to write. And then I sold the first three books to Joe Monti at Simon & Schuster.
But I hadn’t sacrificed my SF career after all, because I also sold three more books of my far-future Praxis series to another publisher. Fortunately both publishers were willing to let me alternate deliveries of the books, so I’d be writing fantasy and SF in alternate volumes.
Now I could start enjoying myself.
Whether the reader enjoys Quillifer or not will depend entirely on whether or not they find the hero congenial, for the book is narrated entirely in Quillifer’s voice. Quillifer is a young man, lowborn but bumptious and roguish and on the make, an apprentice lawyer and serially in love. Though he finds himself in war and peril, he prefers to skate through life on brains and charm.
In fact he’s the smartest guy in the room. His problem is that he won’t shut up about it. He will cheerfully and eloquently offer solutions to every problem under discussion, and a great many that aren’t. He mocks his enemies, laughs at their pretensions, sleeps with their wives, and satirizes their failures.
Naturally some of these people are not inclined to appreciate his gifts. His cleverness gets him into at least as much trouble as it gets him out of.
But for the most part he has fun. I’m betting that readers might want to have fun along with him.
Fun has been a little hard to find in fantasy of late. Post-Game of Thrones and its well-deserved success, shelves have been so flooded with works that concentrate so exclusively on violence, violation, and despair, that the term “grimdark” has become a commonplace. I decided to provide an alternative.
Not that Quillifer is without tragedy. Its protagonist faces one harrowing situation after another. But I strove for balance, because I simply don’t find it convincing to write a world where only bad things happen and where happiness is impossible. Tragedy and misery may be part of the human condition, but so is laughter, song, and romance, and Quillifer finds his share of all these things.
In his adventurousness youth he is a useful guide to his world, which is not of the Middle Ages but more akin to the Northern European Renaissance. The printing press has ended the monopoly on literacy enjoyed by nobles and monks, and gunpowder has made a common soldier the equal of a knight. Quillifer intends to discover whether, in this changing world, it is possible for a clever, educated commoner to rise in the world. He’s not a lost prince looking for a lost throne, he’s a charming high-flyer looking for the main chance. This brings him into conflict with the established order, much to the latter’s dismay.
Not that Quillifer’s spending all his time on the hustle: there’s a whole world to explore. And I pride myself on some fairly thorough worldbuilding– if there’s one thing taking nearly a decade to write a book will do, it’s being able to think about it a lot, and to do tons of research. (And as an SF guy, I love me some research!)
Though I pride myself on my imagination, the research kept turning up bizarre things that turned out to be far stranger than anything I’d been able to think up on my own. We tend to think of the Middle Ages as fairly static and simple, and of Medieval society as consisting of a number of orderly classes like royalty, nobles, knights, and serfs. In reality the Middle Ages were complicated and weird, as I discovered when I visited Gdansk and discovered King Arthur’s Court, complete with a high gothic building, a round table, and the coats-of-arms of Arthur’s knights.
I had always assumed that King Arthur belonged somewhere in Britain and not in Poland, but discovered that King Arthur’s Court was built in the mid-Fourteenth Century by wealthy local burgesses, who dressed up as knights, called each other by made-up knightly names, and held feasts, fairs, entertainments, and jousting. They were very much like our Society for Creative Anachronism, except that in their case it was Creative Realism. They were cosplaying the Middle Ages during the actual Middle Ages!
Forgive me for thinking that was pretty strange.
People also tend to think of the Renaissance as a period of art, poetry, and humanism. Which it was, but it was also a period where millions of people were killed over the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. Enlightenment and invention had created better and more efficient ways of slaughtering people.
What the Middle Ages and the Renaissance had in common was that both eras were great roiling masses of change. People who view the Middle Ages as static forget that the Middle Ages produced eyeglasses, the spinning wheel, the windmill, the blast furnace, the clock, the magnetic compass, distilled liquors, gunpowder, the printing press, and ultimately the Renaissance.
So who can thrive in an era of change? Someone who’s smart, flexible, informed, free to act, and unhampered by obsolete dogma.
Someone not unlike Quillifer.
“Well,” I can hear you thinking, “so far you’ve got a fine historical novel, but I believe this is supposed to be a fantasy.”
Well, yes, I provide fantasy stuff, too, and it’s fantasy stuff that I had nearly a decade to think about, so it’s about as thick and layered as everything else. I don’t want to go into it in detail, because that would easily double the length of this essay, but suffice it to say there are fantastic beasts, exotic humanoids, magic, a cursed weapon, and one tempestuous, vengeful, beautiful goddess whose relationship with Quillifer is, umm, fraught. (It’s one thing to challenge the earthly establishment, but challenging divinity is much harder to do.)
I hope you can tell that I had a lot of fun creating this book. I did my best to make the fun as contagious as I could.
I am sufficiently modest not to praise myself in the terms which I feel I deserve, but egotistical enough to let someone else do it. I shall conclude, therefore, with a quote from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz, who very kindly provided a blurb that graces the cover. “Walter Jon Williams is a visionary of tremendous power and originality . . . He kills every damn time.”
You want thrown gauntlets?David Walton throws one in the first sentence of this Big Idea piece for this novel, The Genius Plague. Read on to see it, and whether you agree.
Zombie books just aren’t creepy enough.
They’re exciting, don’t get me wrong. When some drooling dead guy is breaking down your door to sink his teeth into your flesh, it’ll get your blood pumping. But the thing is, he’s dead. He’s not a person anymore. You can shoot him in the head and not even feel guilty about it.
But what if the zombies weren’t mindless? What if they were smarter than you? What if you let them into your house because you didn’t know there was anything wrong, because they didn’t even know they were zombies, and when they stabbed you in the back and infected your family, they truly believed they were doing the right thing?
My zombies aren’t really zombies at all, not in the classic undead sense, although they’ve been infected with a fungus that sends microscopic tendrils to set up shop in their brains. The fungus doesn’t turn them into moaning, decaying corpses, though. It’s much more subtle than that.
At first, it even seems to be beneficial. The fungus streamlines certain pathways of the brain and makes the hosts smarter, with better memory and learning ability and communication skills. Researchers think it could cure Alzheimer’s and dementia. Kids start taking it as a drug to do better on their exams. But the more beneficial the fungus appears, the more committed its hosts become to protecting it and spreading it to every human on Earth.
And why wouldn’t they? It’s a good thing, right? And if they have to kill anyone that gets in their way, that’s just what’s best for humanity. Or for the fungus. Whatever.
My zombie horde is spreading the plague on purpose, and they’re smarter than you are.
I first thought of this idea when I heard the suggestion that from an evolutionary perspective, wheat is the most successful organism on Earth. After all, wheat has taken humans that used to roam wild and domesticated them, getting them to spread its seeds all over the globe, and then enslaved them to weed out any competing plants and eradicate pests. All so stalks of wheat can grow tall and strong by the trillions.
It’s an amusing notion, and it’s not exactly wrong. But I realized that fungus is even better suited to using humans than wheat is, not because we want to eat it, but because fungus already directly manipulates animals to spread its spores. The zombie ants are the famous ones, of course (go watch the Planet Earth video if you don’t know what I’m talking about), but there are various other ways that fungus subverts animals to do its bidding. And fungus is smarter than you think — some single organisms create vast networks of microscopic tendrils that spread through an entire forest and pass information about where the moisture and nutrients are, basically acting like a giant Internet. Or a giant brain.
So what would you do, if there was a drug that could make you smarter? Or cure your dad of Alzheimer’s? No need to be squeamish about a little fungus living in your brain — you already have trillions of microorganisms living in your mouth, throat, stomach, lungs, and all over your skin. You won’t feel a thing. It’s a simple choice, really, given all the problems you have in your life. There’s not much at stake: just the free will of every human on Earth.
I often joke to people that in Bradford, where I live, a traffic jam is three cars behind an Amish buggy. It’s not actually a joke; when you see a line of cars going five miles an hour, you know there’s a buggy up on the front of that line. It is not actually a problem, mind you. Eventually the cars pop around the buggy and it’s fine. But it’s a reminder than not everyone lives on Internet time. I think that’s a good reminder to have, now and again.
It’s actually a little idea: very short fiction celebrating cocktails, with recipes and flavor text. There are plenty of cocktail books organized around literary themes, and plenty of fiction titles that include recipes, but the exact formulation of ingredients in Mixed Up Cocktail Recipes (and Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader) is brand new.
Mixed Up is designed for the food/beverage section of the bookstore, featuring classic and new cocktail recipes, and flash fiction by a cross-genre selection of writers including fantasists Jeff VanderMeer and Carmen Maria Machado, crime writers Jim Nisbet and Libby Cudmore, thriller authors Robert Swartwood and Benjamin Percy, and literary fiction authors Jarret Kobek and Cara Hoffman. (And, as book covers say, “many more.”)
What’s the big idea? Well, once upon a time, there was fiction everywhere: in the magazines full of household tips, and the ones about hot cars and hotter pin-ups. Junior’s little weekly school magazine had short fiction in it, and so did the coffee table magazine for the whole family. Daily newspapers ran occasional fiction as well. And that’s almost entirely gone now, having been replaced by listicles, bullet points, and pie charts. You know, content. My co-editor and I wanted to bring fiction back as an equal partner to non-fiction.
And there’s plenty of good non-fiction being written about cocktails. The origins of the drinks, and their ingredients, are utterly fascinating, as are the life stories of the people who invented and poured them. And of course the tales of those fueled and felled by alcohol are also endlessly compelling.
What’s been missing is the ineffable something that only fiction can provide. Anecdotes tend to simply evaporate before offering an epiphany; historical gossip lacks for climaxes, except for the tragic classic: “And then the famous author drank so much he stopped writing and just died.” We wanted to offer something different—compelling narrative as the central ingredient, not just the garnish.
Mixed Up was not easy to place with a publisher, because it was so…mixed up. Recipes and essays about drinks? Sure! But fiction?
“Where would it go?” editors wanted to know. How do you sell such a book to stores; they’re definitely not going to put it on all applicable shelves at once. Other anthologists twisted up their faces at the idea—“Yeah, but how can you sell to SF and crime and literary readers at the same time?” Our answer was simple: Mixed Up is a cocktail book, and a gift book. We’re reclaiming space for fiction to exist outside the fiction shelves.
We want thirsty readers to open our book and discover not just the amazing recipes perfected by co-editor Molly Tanzer, but also a family of fire-breathers, a midnight crime spree among the kiddie play structures in a suburban backyard, an illicit flask in the hands of a pregnant woman attending an art exhibit, and that really amazing East Village party Vladimir Putin secretly attended back in the year 2000.
We think you’ll like it. And if not, have one more round of your favorite drink, then read the stories again.
Today I wrote 1,850 words on Head On, my novel which is coming out next year. In any year previous to 2017, 1,850 words from me in a single day would be an okay day — slightly below my general average of 2,000 or so that I can reliably pump out on a daily basis, but not so far below that I would worry about it. The 2k daily goal is fungible. Some days I’ll get 1,850 words, some days I’ll get 2,300, and over time it all comes out in the wash. I get a novel done in roughly three or four months, a span of time which leaves room for false starts, snipping out dead ends, and otherwise revising and fixing the novel as I go along.
Here in 2017, 1,850 words on the novel in a day — 1,85o usable words — is an actual goddamned miracle. I started Head On in January with the plan to be done in the first half of the year, to leave the rest of the year open for other projects, including getting a head start on the next book in the Interdependency series. And here we are in October and I’m still not done, and generally speaking I’ve been lucky if I’ve gotten a few hundred usable words out of a writing day. I have never had as hard a time writing a novel as I have had with this one.
Not because this particular book is hard to write. The novel, which is the sequel to Lock In, is complicated — it’s got a mysterious death and lots of twisty and turny bits — but I’ve done complicated before. Complicated is not inherently difficult to write. It just takes attention to detail, which normally I’m able to do just fine. When I write on it — when I have those stretches of being able to write — it all works. The plot flows well, the characters are doing their thing, and everything chugs along. What I’m writing is good. There’s just so much less of it than usually happens for me.
I’m not trying to be mysterious about what it is about 2017 that is different. The answer is obvious: Trump is president, and he’s a peevish bigoted incompetent surrounded by the same, and he’s wreaking havoc on large stretches of the American experience, both in his own person and by the chaos he invites. But to say “well, Trump,” is not really to give an answer with regard to what’s different. We’ve had terrible presidents before — George W. Bush springs to mind — and yet my ability to create work was not notably impacted. When Dubya was in office I wrote five novels. The Dubya era was a crappy time for America (recall the wars and the Great Recession) but from the point of view of productivity, it was just fine for me.
The thing is, the Trump era is a different kind of awful. It is, bluntly, unremitting awfulness. The man has been in office for nine months at this point and there is rarely a week or month where things have not been historically crappy, a feculent stew of Trump’s shittiness as a human and as a president, his epically corrupt and immoral administration, and the rise of worse elements of America finally feeling free to say, hey, in fact, they do hate Jews and gays and brown people. Maybe other people can focus when Shitty America is large and in charge, but I’m finding it difficult to do.
Here’s one way to put it: Twelve years ago, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the US Government flubbed its response and hundreds died, I was so angry and upset that I almost vomited in sadness and anger. It’s not an exaggeration, by the way — I literally felt like throwing up for a couple days straight. I eventually had to write “Being Poor” because it was either do that or go crazy. That was a week of feeling generally awful, and it wrecked me for another week after that. It took two weeks for me to get back on track with the novel I was writing at the time.
Got it? Okay, listen: 2017 has been me feeling like I felt when Katrina hit every single fucking month of this year.
Because, well. Pick a month, guys. Every month of 2017 has been a treat. Travel bans, white supremacists marching, awful health care repeals that just wouldn’t die, and not one, not two, but three historically massive hurricanes and the scouring of Puerto Rico. Russia. Fucking Russia, man. Not to mention Spicer, Scaramucci, Flynn, Price, Bannon, Gorka and the rest of that ridiculous cast. Any one of those is enough to get me (and not just me, lots of people) spun up and distracted. And it’s not just any one of these things. It’s that all of these things keep on happening. When you’re already spun up, it doesn’t take all that much more energy to stay spun up and distracted.
Well, just unplug! Well, see. Here’s the thing about that: I have. And I’ve found out it doesn’t really work like it used to. The world gets in anyway, because the world is in worse shape and wants you to know. It’s not just a matter of unplugging from social media, although it does help to get away from that. But short of building a Faraday cage around my house and then never, ever leaving it, the news of the day arrives.
Now, I want to be clear: It’s not just the news. It really is also me. I have never not been politically engaged — remember I wrote an opinion column when I worked in newspapers, and that I was writing here on Whatever for years before Old Man’s War was published. It’s hard for me to disengage; more than, I suspect, many other people. In a very real sense, this is part of who I am and what I do. I find it difficult to walk away from it, because I know it doesn’t stop just because I’m not paying attention to it.
(And also, while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about the fact that even if it is hard for me to tune this shit out, I could tune it out, with relatively little penalty to me. In Trump’s America, if you’re a straight white rich dude, none of his bullshit is aimed at you personally. Meanwhile lots of people I know can’t tune it out, because the bullshit is aimed right at them. It’s not accurate to say I feel guilt about this. It is accurate to say that I feel uncomfortable not standing with my friends and others who don’t have the luxury I have, of tuning out when it’s inconvenient to be tuned in. Note also this is also about me — I know folks who have to tune out in order to stay outside of a depression spiral, and I encourage them to do so. This about my own struggle with this stuff, not anyone else’s.)
What 2017 has been doing for me is making me realize that I can’t do work in the same way I used to. It’s too hard to tune out what’s going on in the world, and because of it I have to make some changes — to my workflow, to my understanding of what’s a good writing day, and in allocating time to get work done. In effect, I have to learn how to change my swing in order to work effectively in this chaotic new environment. It’s taken me longer to figure this out than I would have liked; I’ve spent a lot of time this year trying to get make the old workflow function rather than reconfiguring my process to the new facts on the ground. Part of this was, simply, hoping things would settle down and get back to normal. But it’s October 2017 and it’s time to face the fact that, at least as far as my writing process goes, the old “normal” is gone.
Why am I talking about this right now? Basically, because I know it’s not just me. I know a lot of writers have seen their process take a hit here in 2017. It’s hard to focus when the world is on fire, and with novelists in particular, I suspect that sometimes it’s hard to focus when you’ve got the suspicion that your fiction is almost frivolous in the context of what’s going on right now. Well, and maybe it is. But, speaking as someone who spent an hour retweeting pet pictures today to break up the horror of mass shooting news in people’s tweetstreams, sometimes frivolity helps. And for all writers (and probably other creative people as well), knowing that you’re not the only one having a fucked-up world messing with your process might make you feel less alone.
(Yes, yes, Scalzi, solidarity with writers and all, but what does this mean for Head On? From the reader point of view: Nothing. The book will be written in ample time for the April release date. And it will be excellent — like I said earlier, what I’m writing is good. It’s just slower this time.)
So, yeah, writers: this gig is harder here in 2017. It’s not just you. And I feel you. I really do.