“Belly of the Whale” by Burning Sensations. It’s a very 80s video.
Sometimes you think a book is going to go one way, and then it goes another, and that turns out — perfectly fine, actually! Elizabeth Bear had a bit of that experience with her new novel Ancestral Night. Here she is to explain the zigs and zags.
Ancestral Night had a hard time getting born.
It’s not the book’s fault. It’s possibly the author’s fault—or possibly the fault lies in the stars. The world kept changing radically on me while I was writing it, you see—personally, politically, and profoundly. And as I and everything around me underwent those changes, the book wound up changing too.
I had originally envisioned something much more along the lines of an epic space opera with multiple points of view and a lot of focus on the politics. The politics were the big idea around which the world was built, after all. The idea of a massive, multi-species, basically benevolent but imperfect post-scarcity bureaucracy devoted to maintaining peace and the well-being of its citizens, however imperfect it could sometimes be in implementation, was appealing in 2014. I feel like it’s even more appealing now, frankly: it would be nice to believe in functional governments again.
I was inspired by Iain Banks and his Culture novels, but I wanted more detail on how a post-scarcity society and a completely novel form of government might work. The best, most egalitarian, fairest systems of government we have now are based on structures that are millennia old at their core. Democracies and republics actually use a series of bronze-age technologies to approximate some of the better aspects of group decision-making protocols that science shows us are the most efficient known way of getting stuff done, but the technology exists to remove even more barrier to making those protocols work.
And we live in an era when nationalism and factionalism and classism and bigotry are the biggest barriers we have to addressing existential threats so vast that they require species-wide cooperation, which is a thing we can’t quite seem to get our teeth into. And in that case, possibly the fault likes not in our stars, but in ourselves.
So what if we could fix some of the shortsightedness evolution has given us, now that it’s become maladaptive? What if the greatest weapon we have for enduring our survival into the future is self-awareness and the ability to look at ourselves and decide to be better people? Not just on a person-by-person level, but as a species?
What if we could decide to grow up and deal with our problems, instead of ignoring them and assuming somebody else will handle the cleanup?
In the universe of Ancestral Night, humanity made these decisions long ago—after we nearly died out as a result of not making them for too long. Our species made it to the stars, but in the wake of a near extinction event that left us with no options except to die, or to change. We developed a system of government without professional politicians, where decision-making is handled through distributed systems, simulation games, and advanced forms of modeling. Where people are called to serve as executives for a limited time, and it’s as annoying as jury duty.
The way the book turned out, however, all of this receded into the background. I found that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a narrative focused on adventures and the vast distances of space, where travel even at faster than the speed of light takes months and there’s no quick means of communication between remote points. I needed to show my protagonist racing to beat propagating information, and wrestling with massive ethical questions.
That was how, on my third or fourth attempt to write the thing, I wound up in the head of salvage operator Haimey Dz, getting her to tell her story herself.
It was an odd choice—I recognized that even as I was writing it—to tell this story about deep time and vast reaches of space and personal responsibility and dueling ideas of what it even means to be human through a single first-person narrator. But it’s also a story about the unreliability of personal experience and memory and what a pain in the ass our atavistic and uncooperative neurology can be when we’re just trying to get stuff done, and I think that was why diving deep into one character’s experience was the tack that finally worked.
The only thing I’m sad about is that it meant I got to spend less time than I planned with Mantis Cop. I hope you’ll forgive me, although I understand if you don’t. I acknowledge going in that Mantis Cop is totally the best, and the point of the whole novel, and all the pages that don’t involve Mantis Cop are wasted. WASTED.
But that one small point aside, I am pretty happy with the book I finally got, after years of wrestling.
I hope it works for you too.
It’s a very New York view, I have to say.
Also, yes, I was just here. Surprise! I’m back again. And the reason I’m back is that tonight I’m talking with V.E. Schwab about the re-release of her first novel, The Near Witch. I read it on the plane. It’s darn good. We’ll be at the Union Square Barnes & Noble at 7pm. Come on down!
I grew up around stories of war.
My grandparents met in liberated France in World War II. He was an American GI. She was a young French woman who had lived in Nazi-occupied France. While he talked very little about the war –one of his jobs after the liberation was driving trucks of the dead out of concentration camps – she had many stories about encounters with Nazis and living under fascism. She would proudly display the scar on the side of her head where a bullet from a dog fight overhead between US and Nazi aircraft seared away her hair and flesh. The bullet lodged in the wall of a building behind her, and she had dug it out and proudly displayed it. Her literal brush with death.
She and her friends once found a Nazi boot along the river – with a foot still inside of it – and she told us about their terror about it being found, because for every Nazi killed in her town, ten French people would be rounded up and shot. She and her friends chucked the boot into the river, praying it was never found. Her father was part of the French resistance, and the SS came to her home often to harass him. When she married my grandfather, she thought she had won a great lottery. They spent the first seven or eight years of their marriage in France as the Americans helped rebuild after the war. Her disappointment on finally arriving to the United States, unable to speak English and faced with the terrible reality of enlisted military housing in the 1950s, was palpable in every story she told us about her earliest days here.
These stories had a profound effect on all of her children and grandchildren. Many joined the military, several became career soldiers. Others married soldiers or joined the reserves. I grew up understanding that sometimes there was a greater evil that we all must come together to fight. It would take me far longer to realize that in the vast majority of wars, who was good and who was evil was a lot more difficult to sort out. The far more common war is not one of external aggression, but of politics and resource hoarding and colonialism.
I went on to study the history of war, revolution, and propaganda. My Master’s thesis explored the African National Congress’s use of propaganda in the recruitment of women fighters in the struggle against Apartheid. This line of research opened horrifying and fascinating new doors for me into the role of propaganda, storytelling, training, and politics all play in creating, uplifting, solidifying, and destroying human systems of government.
The initial spark for this story began with the idea of exploring a near-future stepping stone to instant teleportation – busting soldiers down into light. But what makes this a complex piece of work is the real world research that went into the politics and realities of war. The Light Brigade has a lot of big ideas: time travel, interplanetary war, dangerous tech, propaganda and psychological manipulation of civilians and soldiers. It also has a lot of ideas crawling beneath the surface, thoughts on how war changes us and our relationships, how conflict breaks us down, how hope for the future can keep us going long after a pessimist would have stopped.
Even knowing what I do about the horrors human beings have committed to themselves and one another, I still believe in the future. I believe in the future because I understand that the war machine is not some innate human compulsion. It is carefully nurtured and celebrated by those in power. The firing rates of soldiers in the first two World Wars were abysmal by modern standards. They threw all of these kids into battle and only 20% of them would actually fire at another human being out on that field. The rest shot without aiming at anything at all, or shot at the ground, or simply did not fire. The US military completely transformed how it trained soldiers after World War II, with an emphasis on teaching human beings how to murder each other without hesitation. Using advanced psychological tactics, the US military improved firing rates from 20% in World War II to 97% in Vietnam. And once it’s been taught, there is no program that’s been designed to reverse that training.
I have stories like these and so many others to share. I’ve used first-person accounts from soldiers – my friends, my family, and those I’ve collected through my research –to create the intimate, beautiful and horrifying world of The Light Brigade. In truth this book is less about predicting the future because so many aspects of this future are already here. Instead, it challenges us to rethink our present, and everything that comes after it. What is the future we want to build? How are we going to get there? Because everything is constructed. We can teach ourselves to create any type of future we want. But first we need to understand how much of the present is simply social conditioning.
That’s what I love so much about writing in this genre. It challenges us all to rethink our assumptions and expectations. It’s a journey I hope you’ll all take with me.
I was on the high seas for a week and while I was away the books and ARCs piled up — here’s about half of what came in since I was away. Anything here you’d like to take on a long cruise with you? Tell us all in the comments!
The Netflix animated-but-really-not-for-kids series Love, Death & Robots came out last Friday, and three of the eighteen episodes were based on short stories of mine: “When the Yogurt Took Over,” “Alternate Histories” and “Three Robots.” So naturally folks are wondering how I got involved with the series and how these particular stories were chosen, as well as my thoughts on the whole experience of seeing my stories turned into these animated shorts. I’m happy to report that in fact the entire process was quite pleasant, and honestly kind of a best-case scenario in how working with film and television folks can go.
The initial contact happened in January of 2017, when someone from Blur (the production company that made the series for Netflix, run by Tim Miller, who is best known as the director of Deadpool), got in touch with my film/TV agent about optioning two stories from my Miniatures collection, “Yogurt” and “Alternate Histories,” for a potential animated series. I was deeply amused by the possibility of “Yogurt” in particular being turned into an animated film — I had written the piece in about an hour a few years previous, mostly as a goofy thing for this very blog — and after some research into Blur and the usual back and forth with terms, we gave the company the option on the stories.
When that happened I did one of my patented “Well, this was a good day,” mysterious tweets, which lead to this DM exchange with one of my friends:
Friend (jokingly): Basically, everything you’ve ever written has been optioned for television? Except for the yogurt thing.
Me: No, seriously.
Friend: The yogurt thing has been optioned?
Me: (sends image of the opening graph of the Yogurt option)
Friend: Oh my fucking god.
Which of course I found entirely delightful.
Not long after I signed the option I was in Los Angeles on other business entirely and I stopped by Blur to meet Tim Miller. We got along famously, and some time later I sent him a short piece I had written for the Robots vs Fairies anthology, not to pitch it to him but just because I thought he’d enjoy it. He wanted it anyway, and that’s how “Three Robots” was bought for the series before it was even published.
Working with Tim and the Blur team has been a highly positive experience. They kept lines of communication open, and checked in with me during production. They also asked for my thoughts and notes, which I gave and which they took seriously, incorporating many into further iterations of the shorts they were developing from my stories. The screenwriters for my episodes (Philip Gelatt for “Three Robots” and “Alternate Histories,” and Janis Robertson for “Yogurt”) did a fine job in adapting my original story concepts to something that could work on screen; most of what I wrote in my stories made it to the scripts, but what was different and/or added made the stories better as animated shorts. I count those as good collaborations. Likewise with Victor Maldonado and Alfredo Torres, who co-directed all of my episodes. They got me and my work. Additionally, Blow Studios did the design and animation for “Three Robots” and “Yogurt” and Sun Creature Studio did the honors for “Alternate Histories.” Both studios did their work fabulously.
(Also, let me geek out for a moment about the voice acting on my episodes! Rebecca Reidy and Dieter Jansen are fabulous in “Alternate Histories” and Josh Brenner and Gary Anthony Williams make their two of the “Three Robots” come alive — plus it tickles me to have Chris Parnell cameo in that episode. And as a lover of both The Brain from Pinky and the Brain, and of Father from Kids Next Door, the fact that Maurice LaMarche narrates “When the Yogurt Took Over” fills my brain with unfathomable squee.)
The biggest problem, if you want to call it that, was simply keeping quiet about the series until the last couple of months. Obviously when one sells an option for one’s work, one wants to announce it, as loudly as possible, not only for ego gratification (although, come on, that’s a big part of it) but because it helps sell options for other work. But Netflix and Blur wanted to play this one close to the vest, as it were. They had done well by me in every other respect, so keeping quiet in public was something I was happy to do. In any event, now it’s out in the world, and I can talk about my participation in it.
All three of my episodes were part of the early preview that Netflix showed to pro reviewers, and I was happy and relieved to see that the reviews of those segments were almost uniformly positive. Reviewers seemed to enjoy the humor and bought into the ridiculousness of the episodes and their stories. These episodes are the first things of mine ever to make it to TV (although The Verge adapted and animated one of my short stories earlier this year on their Web site), so it’s nice to have the first things of mine that people watch in their living rooms be things that they really seem to like. The episodes are even already generating fan art, including one robot in particular:
So that’s nice. Folks have been saying to me that there should be a “Three Robots” TV series, which, well, sure. If Blur and Netflix want it, I’ll be happy to talk to them about it. In the meantime, I’m enjoying what we have now.
I’m also pleased that a number of my friends also had work adapted in LD&R, including Marko Kloos, Peter F. Hamilton, Ken Liu, Joe Lansdale and Alistair Reynolds among others, and that by and large the general response to the series has been good, both from reviewers and from people watching. There have been substantive criticisms as well, mostly about the series skewing heavily toward the male gaze, which I think is a fair assessment. It’s something for everyone involved in a series to consider for a season two, if there is a season two, which I hope there is, whether I’m involved or not (although to be clear I would be thrilled to be involved again. And no, I know nothing else about a potential second season other than what I have just now written).
For now, however, I am enjoying following the responses to the show by viewers on social media, most of which can see summed up as “Holy crap what did I just watch and how soon can I have more of it?!?” This is what you like to see as a creator. I’m glad people like Love, Death & Robots, and my contributions to it. And I’m glad that for me, at least, the path to its production was so painless and, in fact, genuinely enjoyable and fun. Thank you, Tim Miller, and Blur, and everyone else involved. I’ll happily work with you again, and that’s a very big compliment.
(PS: the eBook of Miniatures, the short story collection that features the stories “Yogurt” and “Alternate History” are based on, is on sale for the next couple of days for $2.99. You can get it from Subterranean Press directly, or from your favorite online retailer.)
It was just the previous post. I put up some pictures that were meant to be seen only by a particular group of friends, and gave them a password to see them, that’s all. Also, the pictures were nothing salacious, just pictures. In any event you can access the rest of the site just fine. I note this due to some concerned emails and tweets.
There is no excerpt because this is a protected post.
Over the last week I was on the JoCo Cruise, and once again I took pictures of some of the concerts that happened on the boat. If you were also on the JoCo Cruise and want to relive the experience, or weren’t but just would like to see some pictures of the concerts, there are two albums to peruse:
And for those of you who don’t want to bother, here’s a few other photos from those sets.
(The photo above is of Aimee Mann, by the way.)
I’m still off on a cruise (which has been going swimmingly, thank you very much), but I would be remiss if I didn’t make you aware that Love, Death and Robots, David Fincher and Tim Miller’s brand-spanking-new animated series, is now up on Netflix for your streaming pleasure — and also, if you watch the segments “Three Robots,” “When the Yogurt Took Over,” and “Alternate Histories,” you may notice my name in the credits. Why? Because they’re based on short stories I’ve written, that’s why. I’m deeply pleased about this.
I’ll talk more about the segments and how I got involved with the series probably on Monday, when I’m back on land and caught up on everything, so for now let me just say I hope you enjoy Love, Death and Robots in a general sense and my segments in particular. Also, a reminder that the series as a whole is TV-MA (equivalent to a hard R for you film buffs), so you may want to wait until you are not at work to watch it (for my bits, “Yogurt” and “Robots” are PG-13ish, and “Alternate Histories” is a solid R). Hey! Animation for grown ups! Who knew it was a thing.
Bye! See you all in a week!
“Oh, you’re going away? Here, let me make sure you have enough cat hair for the duration.” Such a giving kitten, Smudge is.
In other news, I’m off for another JoCo Cruise, so don’t expect to see too much here in the next week or so, since I don’t anticipate having a whole lot of Internet connectivity, and even less interest in knowing what’s going on in the outside world. Don’t worry about the cats, we have a full-time house sitter, who understands their primary role is to let cats in and out of the house.
If I don’t post again for a while, please enjoy your week (and change). I’ll be back soon enough with tales of the Caribbean, I’m sure.
As a film producer, Mallory O’Meara knows that the amazing designs you see in movies don’t magically appear out of the thin air — they’re the work of dedicated creators and craftspeople. So when O’Meara set out to learn more about the mind behind the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she discovered a story that was every bit as interesting and compelling as the creature design itself. Here she is to tell her what she found, and what she’s sharing in her book The Lady From the Black Lagoon.
My elevator pitch for The Lady from the Black Lagoon is that the book is Julie and Julia… but for monsters. It didn’t start out like that, though.
This book started out simply as a biography of Milicent Patrick, an influential artist whose legacy has been purposely obfuscated for decades. She was an illustrator, a concept artist, one of the first female animators at Disney and the designer of the iconic monster from the 1954 science fiction film CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.
The press and attention that Milicent got as the designer of the Creature was the pinnacle of her career. It also caused her downfall. Her boss at the time was so jealous of her being in the limelight with the Creature that he fired her. Milicent never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood again and no one knew what became of her.
While I was researching and investigating her life, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write about what happened to Milicent Patrick without writing about why it happened to her. It’s easy to hear a sad story about a woman dealing with sexism in the 1950s and think, “Man, what a bummer. That’s just how things were back then!”
But it wasn’t just how things were back then. What happened to Milicent Patrick is still happening. It’s happening right now.
I know this because it happens to me. My job as a genre film producer brings me face to face with the same obstacles that Milicent dealt with. Working in the industry that she did – nearly seventy years later – gives me a keen insight into her story. As I wrote and researched, I found parallels between my experiences and Milicent’s.
That’s when I realized that the best way to show the urgency and importance of her story was to include stories from my own life as a female horror fan and filmmaker. Milicent Patrick’s body of work created a legacy that has had an incredible amount of influence on the worlds of art and film. (THE SHAPE OF WATER anyone?)
But the events that led to her credit being stolen left their own influence on the world. This influence is felt by female filmmakers and artists and writers everywhere, every day.
I saw this in action as I worked to uncover Milicent’s life. The difficulties I had finding out what happened to her perfectly illustrate the devastating and systemic effect bias and sexism have on us. So, I decided to also include an account of my investigation and the book morphed into what it is now. Part biography, part memoir, part detective story. What I found out about her life was even more astonishing than I could have imagined.
It’s also a call to action. I hope that someday, what happened to Milicent Patrick will never happen again.
My hotel put me on the top floor, and my room has a balcony. The view is pretty nice.
I’m in town for the Audie Awards, for which Head On is nominated in the science fiction category. We’ll see how it does. But no matter what, I get this view, which I can be happy with.
Hey! It’s March! And to start off this month, here’s a super-sized stack of new books and ARCs to peruse. As always, if there’s something here you’re interested in, tell us about it in the comments. And welcome to the third month!