10 Years of Big Ideas at Whatever

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.

The Big Idea: Sue Burke

The Cover to Semiosis by Sue Burke

Got some houseplants? By the time you finish reading Sue Burke’s Big Idea essay about her novel Semiosis, you’ll never look at them the same way again. That’s pretty much a promise.


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?


Semiosis: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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