A picture of her at the mission in Loreto, Mexico. If I remember correctly, she’s looking up at a saint, or the Virgin Mary. She’s pretty great (Krissy, I mean. The Virgin Mary’s all right, too, I guess).
A picture of her at the mission in Loreto, Mexico. If I remember correctly, she’s looking up at a saint, or the Virgin Mary. She’s pretty great (Krissy, I mean. The Virgin Mary’s all right, too, I guess).
I spent last week on the JoCo Cruise, an annual excursion filled with music and comedy and readings and crafting and games and nerds, and one of the big events on the cruise was a land-based concert in the Mexican town of Loreto, featuring MC Frontalot, Paul & Storm, Aimee Mann, Open Mike Eagle and of course Jonathan Coulton. It was a fabulous time, and as I am wont to do these days, I got out my camera and decided to document it in photos. If you’re interested in seeing the photo set, here it is on Flickr. In addition to the concert itself it features a few extra special guests. What’s not to like? Nothing, I say! It’s all to like! Enjoy.
RACHEL A. MARKS:
I’m going to be honest right up front; the Big Idea for Fire and Bone is a bit wee. It’s even a little childish. But, hey, I was a kid when the seed was planted, so that’s fitting. You see, my imagination has always been more than reality could handle. And, since I can remember, I believed with very little doubt that faeries were real and—hold on to your hats, folks—I was one.
Like, really. I was a faerie.
I didn’t buy into Santa or the Easter Bunny, but I would have bet my life on fae parentage.
In my youthful head, the story went a little like this: My faerie mother was running from something—a mean elvish king, maybe?—and she couldn’t take care of me anymore. So, she left me on the beach (which is obviously why I loved the beach so much), and eventually these two humans stumbled upon me wrapped in kelp and took me home. They just didn’t remember that I wasn’t really theirs, because they’d been put under a spell.
For the doubters, there were a handful of breadcrumbs my kid brain had reasoned out.
Exhibit A: I had green eyes while my parents had blue and brown.
Exhibit B: I didn’t fit in with other kids. At all. I was too different, too quiet, too aware of birds singing in the trees, or the specks of gold reflecting sunlight in the sand. While the other kids played kissing-tag at recess, I collected leaves and made villages for the ants.
Exhibit C: My favorite thing in the world was being submerged in salt water, as deep as I could go. I’d dive down beneath the waves and hold on to the rocks on the ocean floor, blinking at the foggy world of fish and seagrass. So, obviously, I was from the mermaid species of the fae community.
Needless to say, I’ve always been more than a little drawn to folklore, my childhood whimsy morphing into a hunger to study history and legend. Namely, British and Irish. My grandmother was Irish on her mother’s side, disowned for marrying an Englishman, and that family soap opera, told over cinnamon toast and hot chocolate at my grandma’s humble kitchen table, only urged me on in my discoveries. The wilds of the ancient Celts and their pantheons through the ages became one of my favorite things to study, and the fiction that reimagined the mythos over and over became my favorite thing to read. I loved exploring the darker things that terrified even the Romans, sparking them to build Hadrian’s Wall.
Then a little over a year ago I was asked to put together a proposal for my publisher to consider once my debut series ended. As I sat there, mulling over the strange tangles I was managing to pull out of my deadline depleted brain, my only thought was, I wanna write something fun.
I needed the equivalent of book comfort food. And what’s my favorite thing to read about?
But not the cute, Disney reimaginings. I wanted the hypnotic, darker myths, the ancient grit I’d found in my research.
Up popped the big idea: I could reawaken those ghosts of Erin and Albion, and bring them to life in a new way in the modern world—the scent of rosemary burning on the brazier, the distinct blue lines of woad on the skin of a warrior—I could watch the ancient things twist and grow into the iron and concrete of the city as legend wove through reality. I could raise the gods from the dead, and watch them walk the streets once more, playing their games with those weak human hearts in all new ways.
I had my mission. But as I began to create the world of Fire and Bone I realized something wasn’t working. My main character’s journey was too simplistic as it formed. I wanted to take it deeper, draw this strange world around her more, make it wider, weightier. Older. I needed the reader to feel the centuries in every dusty corner. I needed an ancient rite, a thousand-year-old secret.
And so, in spite of my looming deadline, I stopped word-counting and let myself play for a few days. I explored the past of my characters even more, searching out details that might spark the right inspiration, or cast a more effective shadow. I stretched at the framework of my world, picking at the threads here and there. And something surprising bubbled up through the layers.
My very own faerie tale was whispering to me.
“…in the long summer of wyne, the babe was abandoned within the Caledonian wood by the widow, for she hoped that the fae would take back their trickster gift and the gods could be appeased. But no wolf or beast consumed the child. It lay, surrounded by the arms of ash and birch, and soon was found by a humble monk of unknown title to be raised in seclusion until her twelfth year…”
It was like Christmas came early. I’d discovered the fuel I needed to realize my vision more clearly. Plus, a faerie tale!
Everything about my character, my world, suddenly unfolded in front of me. And I dove into the process, head down, fingers flying, imagination buzzing. I knew I could finally create the story I’d been envisioning in foggy pieces. I’d make it stark, I’d make it funny. There’d be beauty, ambiguity, deadly hunger, and ancient secrets. And I’d drag the reader through the madness with pacing abandon. It was going to be beyond epic. Bwahahaha!
Well, that was the dream, anyway. I certainly had fun playing in my historical sandbox of myth. And any faerie relations have yet to complain.
From the plane as it was descending into Dayton. It’s good to be home.
In their new novel The Tangled Lands, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell posit a world where magic is real — and exacts a toll, one different from what one might usually expect. Buckell is here today to expand and expound on that toll, and the parallels that toll has in our real world.
What if magic had a price? That isn’t a new idea in fantasy, or even in old stories. There is often a personal price paid for magic, whether it is Ariel dancing on legs that stab her like knives in the original Little Mermaid, exhaustion from casting a spell, or even needing to grind to find all the ingredients like herbs, experience, or spells in a video game in order to cast magic.
But what if magic had a price we all paid?
My latest book is a collaboration with Paolo Bacigalupi called The Tangled Lands. I remember that the moment we lit upon the idea of the bramble (the thorns of which can send you into an eternal deep sleep) and we realized that it would grow as a side effect of magic use, the entire world opened quickly up for us. Everything in the stories we began to write circled around this core struggle: how do people and society deal with the tragedy of the commons?
In The Tangled Lands, whenever magic is cast, there is a side effect: bramble appears. But it doesn’t just appear near where you cast it. It appears somewhere else, randomly, a while later. It’s just a little, but it grows once it takes root. And it doesn’t take much to be dangerous.
How do you stop people from using it? Do you tell the mother of a child coughing blood she can’t use magic to heal him? Do you tell a mage not to use magic against an attacker?
And then a shopkeeper sweeping up after a long day brushes up against a crevice in a wall, and falls to the ground in a coma. Their son has to burn the bramble out of the walls carefully, then grieve over a parent stuck between life and death.
Who is at fault? How do folks prevent it from happening again? Because everyone has a reason to use magic. Just little charms, here or there. And over time… empires can fall under the choking grip of bramble.
There’s a horror to the almost creeping inevitability of society letting this slow-moving collapse consume us all… so it was intense to create a magical world dealing with the tragedy of the commons because it is a major issue we have faced before and will face over and over again. Whether it is overfishing, clear-cutting, or pollution, society has really struggled with this. But the moment you try to talk about a specific modern concern, people come to it with existing baggage. Examining the core idea without that baggage meant we had tremendous freedom in what stories we told.
Of course, chatting about crazy world building with another author and bouncing ideas off each other is the fun part. For me it’s always the honeymoon of a project like this. But when it comes time to write the book, you have to find a human story that engages.
We told stories about four people: an inventor trying to find a solution to some of these problems, but whose research is used in ways he never wanted, a mother seeking to rescue her children from re-education camps, a brother trying to care for bramble-kissed sister, and a blacksmith struggling to deal with the impact of inequality. But the truth is the story is really all about the land groaning under the weight of all the choices everyone makes on a daily basis about whether their own needs matter more.
I think, sometimes, when looking around at all the creeping inevitabilities heading toward us, we need to talk about them. Somehow. By using this fantasy world, I know I felt I could still tell the stories of individuals persevering against the massiveness of it all without also collapsing into a gibbering mess of despair myself because the real bramble was outside my window. Seeing these characters carry on no matter what, in some small way, gave me a little determination.
There are worse views to have, honestly. Sadly nearly all my time will be devoted to work while I’m here, so I probably won’t get into the city itself. But I’ll be back in April for the book tour, and am very much looking forward to that. Also, of course, a very different skyline than the one I was seeing yesterday, in San Diego. This fascinating jet age we live in, I tell you.
I’m back! Did you miss me? No? Well, fine. Nevertheless I have returned from a week at sea, on the 2018 iteration of the JoCo Cruise. Briefly, it was wonderful, and I had a fabulous time, as always. I would go on about it, and probably will later, but right now I’m actually back at the airport on my way to a sales conference. So details will have to wait.
But I will say one of the highlights of the cruise for me is pictured above: An 80s-themed dance which I DJed and which was a whole lot of fun — people stayed on the dance floor the entire time, which makes me happy. Also, I got to have a slow dance with the hot babe in the dress right there in the front, so that was pretty cool, too. I kinda like her. I hope I get to dance with her again.
I will also say (again briefly and again will probably delve more deeply into this later) that one of the best things about being on the cruise is being away from the whole world for an entire news — no news, no updates, no being upset about whatever damn fool thing is happening on the planet. Running away from the world is not something I encourage on a permanent basis, but for a week? Yeah, it’s pretty great, and I suggest you do it every once in a while as well.
In any event: Hello! How was your week?
Nobody trusts the government.
The single greatest casualty of the political chaos of the past year is our faith in our institutions: from our police to our bureaucracy to our press, scandal after scandal after scandal shakes our foundations. In the vacuum that follows, we routinely bandy around words like “revolution,” and “fascism,” and “dictatorship,” turning to any port in a storm. Teen Vogue surges to the fore of political reportage. Amazon and Berkshire Hathaway flirt with providing healthcare, and we find ourselves leaning on social media to disseminate our numerous cris de coeur.
It’s frightening, but it’s also justified. No matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, in the US or the UK, nobody can be faulted for saying that their government hasn’t been doing a very good job. Nobody can be blamed for cocking an eyebrow or casting a skeptical glance when the authorities come to town. These authorities have routinely abused their power, routinely hyped fear of the other in order to gain more. Bigger and badder weapons, more pervasive and ruthless surveillance, less and less accountability.
Why should we trust them with anything, ever?
But the truth is always more complicated. And even the most passionate resister will admit, when pressed, that the government we despise isn’t always wrong. That the authorities do protect us from enemies who seek to harm us. And that it is possible to stand up to the institutions that smother us, only to find something much worse lurking in the background.
And that’s the big idea behind The Armored Saint.
Heloise Factor has grown up in a world where the priesthood of the divine Emperor, the Order, keeps the devils confined to hell. The Order pitilessly slaughters anyone who they suspect of harboring those wizards whose dabbling in forbidden arts might rip the veil that keeps our world separate from hell, and set the devils loose among us. Riding under the uncompromising mantra of “Suffer no wizard to live,” the Order burns entire villages, leaving nothing alive, if there is even the hint of wizardry. Countless innocents are routinely caught up in their unthinking crusade, and the world simply shrugs its shoulders and moves on. Heloise is raised with a mantra as chilling as the Order’s, “that’s just the way things are.”
But she is an extraordinary young woman and refuses to live like this. In her brave struggle, she forgets one important possibility.
Just because the Order is cruel and corrupt, doesn’t mean they are wrong.
The Armored Saint was conceived before the present political maelstrom was upon us, but it was absolutely written in the midst of it, and as with all of my work, it has pervaded the text. It grew from a book about a young woman finding herself and challenging a cruel and immutable system into a story grappling with the feeling of being cut adrift in a world where it seems nothing can be trusted, where consequences have consequences, and life is often a succession of choosing between bad or worse. 2018 reminds me that our lives are lived out in the midst of a cascade of choices going back generations, chickens all coming home to roost at once.
I think all authors identify with their protagonists to some extent, but it is amazing how deeply entwined I have felt with Heloise all through this journey, and how with each passing event, I feel her presence more keenly. Like all of us, she is wrestling with a world-gone-mad. And like all of us, she is never truly sure if the decisions she makes are the right ones—if she is seeing far enough down the chain of consequences.
Whether she has or she hasn’t, Heloise is amazing. I have been privileged to know her and tell her story. You’ll be meeting her soon, and I hope you love her as much as I do.
Hey folks — taking a break for about ten days. I’ve scheduled a Big Idea post for next week, which you’ll see pop up, but otherwise I’ll be off the Internet entirely until the 25th at least, and probably not back here until the 27th or so. Be good to each other until I get back, okay? Thanks. See you later!
It’s Petra Haden doing an acapella version of David Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” Enjoy.
And yes, in case you’re wondering, I got the name for Haden’s Syndrome from her. She knows. I sent her a signed copy of Lock In.
Because apparently I’ve gone entirely over to the Google side of the force and will be getting “Pixel 4 Lyfe” tattooed somewhere on my body, I’ve acquired a pair of Pixel Buds, the Google-manufactured wireless earbuds that are designed to work specifically with the Google Pixel 2 line of phones (which I have), although I understand they will work like a regular pair bluetooth earbuds with other phones and Bluetooth-compatible devices. I’ve had these for a bit over a week now but have only really used them a lot in the last couple of days (my previous Pixel 2 met a bad end thanks to a tile floor, and I only paired these with the new Pixel 2 the other day). I have thoughts on them. Here they are.
1. The Pixel Buds were not rapturously reviewed in other places, and I think a major knock on them is that they’re very fiddly, i.e., they work in a very specific way and require you to conform to that way, rather than them conforming to you. And in fact, that’s pretty accurate, not the least because in order to charge the buds you have to put them in their carrying case, so if you lose the case, you’re pretty much boned. Also the touch-sensitive surfaces of the earbuds are super-twitchy, which can be really annoying until you develop muscle memory for how to insert and remove the buds from your ears and otherwise interact with them. They’re certainly the most high-maintenance pair of earbuds I’ve owned.
2. Is their high-maintenance nature worth it? If you’re getting them just to have a pair of wireless earbuds, probably not — there are cheaper and less (literally) touchy earbuds you can buy to pair to your phone and listen to music or make phone calls. But if you have a Pixel 2 (or Pixel 2 XL) phone, and you are excited by the idea of having Google Assistant right in your ear and doing things for you at the tap of an earbud (like play music, or look up something, or get walking directions, etc), then, sure, they’re nifty.
I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the Google Assistant up in my ear, incidentally. As with many things relating to Google Assistant and Pixel-line products, I’m not sure that the various shortcuts to access it (squeezing the edge of your phone, the Pixel Bud ear press, the Pixelbook dedicated button) make it any more useful in a general sense than just looking something up via a Google search bar, especially because the Google search bar has voice recognition. It’s ostensibly nifty but in a practical sense I’m still looking for GA to really differentiate itself. That said, with the Pixel Buds you can keep your Pixel 2 in your pocket and direct it via the buds, and I suppose that’s not chopped liver.
3. One thing that is very nice about the Pixel Buds — if you have a Pixel 2 — is that it initially pairs with the phone simply by opening the holding case clamshell. It’s the easiest damn Bluetooth pairing I’ve ever done. With that said, in order to pair the buds to the second Pixel 2 after I unintentionally dashed the first phone on bathroom tiles, I had to do a factory reset (pressing a small button inside the case for fifteen seconds) otherwise the new phone wouldn’t find or pair with them. Once I did that, it was again super-simple to pair, but this was kind of a long way around, and I kind of had to figure it out myself. Something to keep in mind.
4. Another thing other reviewers were not in love with was the how the Pixel Buds fit in your ear with the help of cord loops that you adjust and then tuck into your ear folds. But that’s actually working pretty well for me. I guess maybe I have the right sort of ears for it (there are other earbuds that simply do not work for me — the kind that you stuff into your ear canal never work; they always, always fall out). I’ve walked around with the Pixel Buds in and they’ve stayed secure. You do have to readjust them every few times you put them in but that’s not difficult. I haven’t tried heavy exercise with them, but short of that they do just fine.
5. How do they sound? They sound good. The tone is pretty decent and they can get loud if you want them too. They’re not noise-cancelling and they sit outside your ear canal so you can still hear the outside world, which depending on your druthers may not be a great thing (but they get loud enough that you can drown out the outside world, too). Music sounds clear and fine, and the phone meeting I was on this morning was nice and clear in there. They work for their basic intended function.
6. The thing about the Pixel Buds needing to be in their case to charge isn’t my favorite not in the least because I’m almost guaranteed to lose that case at some point. On the other hand it means that the buds are almost always fully charged, and the case itself charges with a USB-C cord, as do the other Pixel products. When you have the Pixel Buds paired with a Pixel 2, the Bluetooth notification also tells you how much battery is left on the earbuds.
7. The major function that the Pixel Buds have that I’ve not tried is translation integration, on the reasoning that I’ve not spoken to anyone in anything other than English since I got them. I’m about to take a vacation to Mexico, and maybe if I don’t too feel dorky about it, I might try it there. The idea of someone speaking in their language and a (basic) translation coming out of my earbuds is gonna be very Babel Fish.
Overall: I like the Pixel Buds, but much of that is because they are in fact so well-integrated with the Pixel 2 and because I’ll willing to work with their inherent fiddliness. If you are as deep into the Google Pixel ecosystem as I clearly am, they are worth a look. If you’re not, maybe wait for the next iteration, or at least better integration with non-Pixel phones.
Author Karen Healey has some very specific advice about the use of apostrophes, and prologues. What is it and how does it have an impact on The Empress of Timbra, the novel she co-wrote with Robyn Fleming? Healey is here to fill you in on the details — with all the apostrophes in the correct place.
There are two pieces of high fantasy writing advice, often given, that I think are thoroughly sensible:
Don’t use apostrophes in names, because it’s a cliche. You’ll annoy your readers. Don’t write a prologue, because your world-building should be incorporated into the main plot; there’s no point in getting the reader interested in events that happened a generation or a century or a thousand years before your main narrative. You only run the risk they’ll be more intrigued with your prologue than what you’ve decided is the real story.
But just because you’re aware of the guidelines doesn’t mean you won’t convince yourself it’s all right not to follow them, especially when you’ve read enough high fantasy to know stories that have got away with breaking one or both of these rules to spectacular effect.
About a decade ago, my co-writer Robyn Fleming and I wrote an epistolary fantasy novel in the style of the Letter Game, exchanging emails back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Like us, our protagonists were separated by an ocean, and like us, they were two young women who were close friends. But unlike us, they lived in a second-world high fantasy setting. They were discovering a vast conspiracy, getting embroiled in politics and romances, and saving two nations with a combination of smarts, luck, and magic.
They had apostrophes in their names.
We started the story as a game, but we realised pretty early on that we had something interesting, maybe even something worth developing into a real novel. So we showed it to some friends.
(For the record: Our apostrophes were meaningful. They were significant. They indicated status, linguistic drift, cultural detail, and history. They were the good kind of apostrophe!)
“Ditch the apostrophes,” our early readers said.
“But they are very important,” we told them, and each other. (The biggest joy–and biggest problem–of having a co-writer is that you can easily reinforce each other’s ideas.) “One might even argue that the apostrophes are essential to the very heart of the narrative! You wouldn’t ask us to cut out the heart of the narrative!”
We took the book to a WisCon writing workshop. Every single critique told us to ditch the apostrophes.
“Fine,” we said. “Fine. We guess the world isn’t ready for our apostrophes.” We cut the goddamn apostrophes. The narrative retained its heart. We learned a valuable lesson about murdering our darlings.
Nobody told us to cut the prologue, and the reason for that was because nobody, including us, actually knew it was a prologue until long after we’d finished the sequel to the first book. The sequel wasn’t told in alternating letters, but in alternating chapters. The protagonists are Elaku and Taver, aged eleven and fourteen, the children of one of the main characters in the first book. The story follows them as they meet for the first time, figure out how to grow up, and, just incidentally, get caught up in a political plot that could destroy their homeland.
We had two protagonists again, and political machinations, and hefty doses of smarts, luck, and magic. We had blacksmithing and dangerous herbivores, religion and treachery, pirates and battles at sea.
This time, we left out the apostrophes.
The Empress of Timbra was undeniably a better book than its predecessor. Our villains were more interesting. Our world-building was stronger. The events of the first novel had sparked a period of rapid social and religious change, and through Taver and Elaku, we were able to explore the implications of that from the perspective of characters who were growing up in a world marked by those changes. And then we wrote a direct sequel to that book, still with Taver and Elaku, and plotted a third and realised… the first book was a 90,000 word prologue.
And we had to cut it.
I don’t regret writing that book. The prologue novel gives a depth and vividness to The Empress of Timbra that makes it feel like part of a larger, older world–which it is. Writing it allowed us to explore some big ideas. But when we gently folded that prologue novel away into a virtual drawer, we were able to concentrate on the even bigger ideas that followed it.
The real story isn’t about the women in that prologue novel. It’s about Taver and Elaku, two bastard half-siblings drawn into dangerous conspiracy in a changing world, relying on their smarts, their magic, their luck, and each other to prevent disaster.
So this is our advice to high fantasy writers who might be starting where we started:
Yes! Go see it! Here’s the link. The artist is Sparth, i.e., the same artist who did such great work with the cover for The Collapsing Empire.
Plus there’s an interview with me there talking a bit about what’s going on in the book. No spoilers on specifics, but there’s a discussion on general themes (and also I have observations about human nature). You know you want to see me rant about people!
Most of you know I play a tenor guitar, which I like very much, but recently I decided I want to try playing a six-string guitar again, and went looking around for one that I thought I might like. Eventually I found one I thought I would like from a smallish company called Zager Guitars (and yes, for those of you of a certain age, that’s the Zager of Zager and Evans). The company makes acoustic guitars with a slightly lower action, closer to that of an electric guitar. Well, I like that in concept; one of my problems with six string guitars is I’m terrible at barre chords, so a lower action would be helpful. I checked reviews online and the company seemed to have a decent reputation, so I put in an order.
The guitar arrived a couple of days ago and so far I’ve been pleased. It has a nice sound, is indeed easy to play (I still suck at barre chords, alas) and generally speaking is providing me the enjoyment I hoped I would get from it. I’m still a terrible guitar player, but I’m playing terribly on a decent instrument, and that’s a start.
Tangentially, when I first got the guitar, I posted a picture of it on Twitter, and right out of the barrel someone sniffily criticized the guitar maker and said something along the line that I should have gotten a different guitar. Hot tip: Don’t be that sort of clueless dickhead out loud. One, it’s just rude. Two, if your first impulse when someone excitedly shows off their new instrument (or whatever) is to shit on it and them for getting it, the problem isn’t them, or the object in question, it’s you.
Three, even if what they got is something that’s not up to your standards for whatever reason, if they’re happy, than be happy for them, you jerk (there is a qualified exception here if they’re collecting, say, pro-Nazi paraphernalia or Mammy cookie jars or endangered animal hides or the like. If they’re doing it cluelessly, maybe clue them in gently. If they’re doing it with full cluefulness, maybe drop them off the holiday card list).
I should be clear this dude attempting a poop smear on my new guitar didn’t make me feel bad about my purchase. I researched and knew what I was buying and why, and to that regard have been perfectly happy with the guitar. It’s pretty much as I wanted and expected it to be. But it did annoy me that this was some grown-ass person’s first impulse. Be better than that, people. It’s not that hard to do.
Hey, it’s time for the book stack! These are the new books and ARCs that came into the Scalzi Compound this week. What’s speaking to you here? Tell us all in the comments!
On January 22, 2008, the first “Big Idea” post went up here on Whatever, for Marcus Sakey’s At the City’s Edge. The latest one, for Sue Burke’s Semiosis, went up just this morning. All told, including the first and the most recent posts, 828 books have been featured in the Big Idea in a decade, and hundreds of authors (and some editors) have stopped by to talk about their latest books, and what motivated them to tell that book’s particular story, at that particular time. Most but not all have been speculative fiction authors — a few writers from other fiction genres have popped in, as well as a few non-fiction writers as well. We’ve even had at least one video game maker come along and talk about the ideas behind their work. Across ten years, it’s been a pretty cool ride.
(And I realize that last line reads like the next line is gonna be “And so it pains me to say the Big Idea is no more,” but don’t worry about that. It’s going to continue.)
I’m occasionally asked why I do the Big Idea feature here, and there are a few answers to that:
1. It was originally on an AOL-owned literary site called “Ficlets,” where I wrote and helped develop content, and doing a feature where writers talked about their new books seemed like a no-brainer for a site like that. When Ficlets closed up shop, I ported it over to Whatever, because it seemed like the thing to do at the time.
2. Here at Whatever, I basically consider it part of my “pay it forward” dues — I’ve done well and have been successful, in no small part because other writers were kind and helped me along the way. This is a thing I can do, that people seem to like doing, so I’m happy to do it and be useful to other writers.
3. Also, it’s easier to do than, say, doing interviews (which takes a reasonable amount of prep if you don’t want it to be canned and boring, and then takes a reasonable amount of post to make it ready for consumption), since the author does most of the work, and I just format, add links and put in an intro paragraph. It’s also better than doing reviews, because there’s no way I could review as many books as I do Big Idea, that is, if I still want to do my own writing.
4. Because they can be interesting as hell and I like reading about other authors’ processes and ideas, and this is my sneaky way of getting to do that on a regular basis.
5. Also because it serves as a way for me to find books I would want to read too, in my copious free time.
At one point I and a couple of friends intended to take the Big Idea concept further and spin it off into its own site. This happened just around the time I started getting really busy, and they also got really busy, and so it ended up that the Big Idea essays stayed here at Whatever (although I still own the proposed URL, BigIdeaAuthors.com; click on it and you’ll be taken to a scroll of Big Idea posts). Every once in a while I still think of spinning them off to their own site. Then I remember that my life is basically scheduled out through 2027 and I think they will stay here for a while longer.
And again, I plan on continuing to have them here for the foreseeable future, so long as authors still want to participate (I was once asked what happens if I give a writer a slot and they don’t turn in a piece. The answer is: Nothing happens to them. This is all voluntary. It’s not like I track them down and scream at them or anything. I just don’t run their piece).
I think it’s wild that it’s been ten years that the Big Idea has been here, doing its thing. It doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet, here we are, more than 800 books later. That’s pretty cool. Thank you to all the authors who have written about their big ideas, and to everyone here to keeps reading them.
On to the next decade.
Who’s in charge of the planet where you live? Is it you – that is, humans? Maybe. But not everything living on Earth is convinced of that. Some of them think you do their bidding, and I don’t mean your cat.
Let’s evaluate Earth from the point of view of fruit. Apples, for example. Apple trees hope you’ll eat their fruit, then throw away the core with its seeds so apples can expand their range. Or as they view it, so they can take over the world. They don’t entirely trust us, by the way: their seeds are too bitter to eat to make sure we’ll do the job right. How has this worked out? Exceptionally well. We love apples even as they manipulate us. They originated in central Asia and now get tender loving care in orchards all over the world. They dominate Washington State, shaping the economy and the lives of many people. Mission accomplished.
Still, you might feel doubtful. Do plants even know we exist? That’s a reasonable question. The answer is yes. Think about how carefully plants create flowers to cater to specific pollinators. When plants want to, they can even communicate with us humans. Tomatoes, for example, change color to tell you something: eat me! Their uncooked seeds can survive a tour of your alimentary canal, so make yourself a salad. Please.
Plants know you’re watching. We humans – and other animals – are very easy to control with food.
Another example: grass. Most of a grass plant grows underground. It sends up its leaves in a cunning ruse. In America’s Great Plains, bison come and eat the leaves, which are easily replaced, and in the process the bison also eat entire weeds and get rid of them for the prairie grass. This is how grasses wrested dominance over the plains. All they needed to do was encourage the evolution of bison, which took a while, but it was worth the time and effort.
Grass took over American suburbs in sort of the same way, using us and our lawn mowers like weekend bison. Your lawn has you well trained.
The fight between grass and weeds also holds a clue: plants can be horrible, especially to each other. In fact, one botanist, Augustin Pyrame de Candolle said, “All plants of a given place are in a state of war with respect to each other.” They fight primarily over sunlight, which is in limited supply, and they will fight to the death.
Roses, for example, grow thorns so they can sink them into whatever is around them and climb over it. If it’s another plant, and if by stealing all the sunlight they kill that other plant, roses don’t care. This is war – in your garden. Whose side are you on?
Jungles are a constant battle of trees versus lianas and other vines, which can weigh down and smother entire trees as they climb to sunshine. Plants also fight each other with poisons, and some fire-hardy plants, such as ponderosa pine trees in the western United States, will drop dry, oily needles to encourage lightning to kindle a flame. This is one reason we can’t prevent forest fires, no matter how hard we try. The pines are working against us.
So we’re not in charge on Earth, at least not as much as we think. Fortunately, our masters – plants – don’t seem to think very deeply, and they seem pretty willing to share the planet with us. But I write science fiction. What about other planets? What if the plants there were more thoughtful and far too willing?
So I decided to send, via a novel, a group of human colonists to a distant planet where they plan to establish a subsistence agricultural colony. They encounter an unexpected problem: the local dominant vegetation notices their arrival and sees what a clever, busy species they are, and how useful they would be. Meanwhile, these humans need to eat. As individuals, they will face dire choices as they struggle to survive and coexist. Who’s really in charge of their new home?
The Pixel 2 is a tough little phone, but it turns out when you drop it from a decent height onto ceramic tile riiiiight on the corner, you may still have a problem or two. A thing to be aware of, folks.
Fortunately I procured a replacement Pixel 2, and with the transfer of the SIM card, everything was up and running painlessly — so painlessly, in fact, that I was a little surprised at how painless it was. I usually go into the local phone store to do all the transferring and so on and whatnot, and that takes time out of my day. But I did this one at home, and… well, no time at all. A lesson may have been learned here.
Another lesson learned: I had been resisting getting a case for the phone, because I quite liked the aluminum and glass aesthetic, and also because I liked the slimness of the naked phone. But clearly there’s a user issue — that dude is clumsy. So, case it is.
The appeal of fantasy is the satisfying escape into the truly impossible, unattainable adventures beyond the reach of even our most exciting moments in the real world. Fantasy provides an opportunity to bring magic and spectacle into our lives so, naturally, part of my upcoming fantasy novel Moonshine was inspired by perhaps the most unmagical thing that has ever happened to me.
I first conceived of the magical prohibition premise of my novel, Moonshine, way back in my high school days before setting aside the project for a number of years. While it was on hiatus, I studied the 1920s more in-depth, learning about the global reach of the flapper movement, the Lost Generation, early 20th century transgender activism, and the racism faced by legendary African American entertainers like Josephine Baker and Baby Esther. A story about prohibition—magical or otherwise—has quite a bit of interesting history to draw upon, much of which goes ignored in favor of whitewashing and de-politicizing the events in the United States in the 1920s. (Strangely, TV and movies set during Prohibition rarely seem concerned with the motivations behind the Temperance Movement.)
After high school was also when I moved from my little agricultural hometown to Portland, Oregon, and in my daily life became exposed to the city’s historic 1930s brick architecture and horrible, soul-crushing gentrification. I learned about the histories of Portland’s immigrant communities, the college that fell into the river, and the little volcano located in the middle of the city. Modern-day Portland also provided its own fascinating and often horrifying inspiration for crafting a fantasy city of feminist activism, queer communities, dangerous ecology, and black market dealings. And while all of that ended up shaping Moonshine, for the story of Moonshine’s main character Daisy, nothing was quite as influential as my experience working a dull, repetitive, underpaid off-white-collar job right out of college.
It was a basic data entry position, completely unrelated to my English degree and nominally focused on processing workers comp claims, although in truth I didn’t (and still don’t entirely) understand the point of most of the work I did there. My employers must have been satisfied enough with my work, though, as a few months in they moved me from the dungeon-like concrete basement to the bright and airy second floor of our renovated art deco building. There, I was trained in a new task—auditing the work of overseas remote employees even more underpaid than me.
Once more, I was mystified as to the point of the task assigned me. It seemed that I was training the remote employees in my own job, which was strange given that my employer already had me to do my job. That had me on-edge, and I had never gotten on well with the rigid, chained-to-the-desk environment of that office. The tipping point, however, was when my manager threatened disciplinary action after I, following company procedure to the letter, called in sick for a single day after I had contracted scarlet fever. So, that was pretty much the end of that.
It wasn’t necessarily my worst job, but the particular badness of this job provided a compelling question: What does my place of employment even do? Or it would have been compelling, if the answer wasn’t almost definitely just “process workers comp claims and exploit employees,” but maybe for someone else it could have been a question with a more satisfying answer. Enter Daisy Dell, or an early concept of her, who got to be the surrogate in my “maybe my desk jockey job is secretly interesting” fantasies. Could the company be a front for a secret lab splicing superhero genes? Had they captured a werewolf for research on a highly volatile lycanthrope virus? Whatever it was, there was definitely weird science happening in the basement.
And that was when I remembered my magical prohibition concept from high school.
I suppose it stands to reason that the story I ended up writing was not informed necessarily by fantastical elements from my own life, which has a limited supply to pull from, but from the fantasy I built in my head to survive the mundanity. (There were fewer podcasts then, you see.) Daisy’s boring day job does indeed lead her to run afoul a magical moonshining operation, which turns out to be a stressful experience for her, but it was pretty damn fun for me during those long hours of data entry.
My job eventually led me somewhere, too, once I was on my path away from it. After the scarlet fever incident, I only stayed on long enough to cushion my savings to take a while off of work. And the day I was gone from that tedious, miserable day job? I started writing Moonshine.
It’s the first trade review of the book (and, in point of fact, the first review of the book, period), and it’s a good one, and calls Head On “Very clever, wonderfully satisfying fun.” There’s a pull quote for you. And it’s nice to have someone entirely uninvolved with the book give it a thumbs up.
The full review is here, although be warned that while there are no real spoilers, the review does go into detail about plot beats. So if you want to be entirely surprised, you might want to skip the full review for now.