Big Idea

The Big Idea: Christopher Brown

No matter what, there are always lawyers. But what happens when there lawyers… but not much law? It’s an idea — dare we say, a big idea — that Christopher Brown considers in his novel, Rule of Capture.


Who are the lawyers you call when you get in trouble in dystopia?

This question came to me one hot summer day several years ago when I was working on my last novel, Tropic of Kansas. I was diligently slogging my way through the middle of the book—you know, the part where you get totally stuck in the weeds, lost without a compass, tearing your hair out and nothing to help you except for every book you’ve ever read and all the things the world around you has to teach if you open your eyes. The characters I was writing that day were a pair of young fugitives, on the run through the ecologically devastated heartland of an authoritarian mirror America, chased by Carhartt militias and autonomous drones. And then one of them got sick, and had to turn himself in. What do you do when your buddy gets locked up in a dystopian prison camp? Especially when you’ve already had one jail break, which is all any single novel can handle.

I took my own break, ran an errand, and then stopped for a coffee by the side of the highway. As I walked back to the car, I noticed the giant billboard looming over me with the image of a larger than life dude sporting leather jacket and tie, wild long hair, a cunning smile, and a very Austin tagline: THE LAWYER WHO ROCKS.

And I immediately thought, what kind of cases would that kind of lawyer handle in my dystopian USA? Being one myself, I know lawyers can make a living helping navigate any legal system you throw at them. And even in the most repressive societies, the ones that lock people up and disappear them without due process, there are lawyers who fight to extract some kernel of justice—and extract some fees along the way.

By the end of the day, there was a billboard inside my novel. Donny Kimoe, “the lawyer even the law is afraid of.” And conveniently for my cell phone-avoiding character, there was a pay phone nearby, and a last quarter in his pocket.

Donny’s onstage scenes got cut, but his billboard survived. And after I finished Tropic of Kansas, I kept thinking about the character, and about that idea, of the lawyers of dystopia. And the more I thought about it, the more potential I saw. Science fiction is full of laws, from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics to the Prime Directive, but almost entirely devoid of lawyers. In contrast, most legal thrillers are not actually about the law, but just the facts—figuring out who committed the crime and meting out punishment. If you set a legal thriller in a science fiction, the “literature of ideas,” you could have the best of both worlds—a gripping courtroom drama whose outcome rides not just on the lawyer proving the facts, but on the lawyer figuring out how to work an unjust system.

I pitched the idea to my editor—“think Better Call Saul meets Nineteen Eighty-Four”—and he liked it so much he wanted two.

Rule of Capture, out today from Harper Voyager, is the result. The story of Donny Kimoe, a burned out trial lawyer defending political dissidents hauled in front of the special emergency court of an America drifting into totalitarianism. Busy trying to save one client from the death penalty after he’s framed for aiding an attack on the President, Donny gets assigned the unwinnable case of Xelina Rocafuerte, a young journalist and eco-activist who witnessed the assassination of a grassroots political leader and is being prosecuted as a terrorist to silence her.  To get her off, Donny has to extract justice from a system in which due process has been suspended. That means breaking the rules, and risking the same fate as his clients.

Donny practices law in a world where the clients are mostly guilty. It’s the laws they violate that are unjust. In otherwords, it’s a lot like the real world, but uses the tools of dystopian fiction to tell truths more conventionally realist legal thrillers cannot. Crafting an imaginary legal system is as challenging a form of worldbuilding as it sounds. But to get started, I didn’t have to go much farther than the nearest law library, where, it turns out, you can find real-world precedents for just about any dystopian legal premise you can imagine—usually codified in laws that are still on the books.

I found an entire section of dusty how-to books on the administration of military rule over the civilian population, mostly from the time before World War Two when martial law was frequently invoked to suppress labor struggles. The suspension of habeas corpus so popular in the South American dictatorships of the 1970s is a power the founders wrote right into our Constitution—one Lincoln invoked during the Civil War. And for my Kafkaesque emergency court, I drew from the trial transcripts of the tribunals still going on at Guantánamo Bay. To paraphrase the Gomi-no-Sensei, the dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.

Once the research was done, I learned that writing lawyer stories is harder than it looks from the outside. Behind the often clichéd courtroom scenes (“Objection!”) and procedural narrative structure, they require you to tell your story in a very different way—the way evidence is presented to a court, which is very different than the usual “show, don’t tell.” Lawyers are a peculiar species of trickster, and they don’t allow too much interiority for fear of giving up their sneaky strategy. But once you figure these rules out, the format reveals tremendous promise. Especially when you mix it up with the things you’ve learned from turning the world upside down in science fiction.


Done right, it might even help prevent us from needing lawyers like Donny in real life.


RULE OF CAPTURE: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s | Audible

Watch the book trailer. Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter or Instagram.


View From a Hotel Balcony, 8/11/19: Dublin, Ireland

No car parks (as they call them here), but a lovely view of the River Liffey. Oh, also, we have a balcony.

We’re in a few days before the Worldcon starts. Ironically, this weekend at the Dublin convention center there’s a comic con, so it already feels vaguely familiar around here.

I’m gonna take a nap now.


Heading Out

Here’s your last look of Ohio (at least from me) for a week, because we’re off to Ireland for the Worldcon in Dublin. We have a whole day of airports ahead of us. Think kind thoughts for our travel, if you would.


New Books and ARCs, 8/9/19

I’m in Dublin all next week, so this week you get a super-sized edition of the new books and ARCs stack. It’s a very fine one, too. Which of these are calling to you? Tell us all in the comments!


Sunset 8/8/19

A nice combination of clouds and orange, I have to say.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Matt Mikalatos

In today’s Big Idea, author Matt Mikalatos considers the idea of justice, and how it works both in our world in and the world of his novel, The Heartwood Crown.


“Whatever happens, don’t go to the police.”

Twenty years ago I lived in a totalitarian state. Still, I was an American, and was treated with general respect. We Americans brought a decent amount of money into the country. My acquaintance who warned me away from the police brought in more than a decent amount.

Someone had broken into his house in a gated community and stolen some electronics. He made a report, and the police returned his belongings a few days later. They had caught the thief, they said, and executed him. The thief’s family had been required to pay for the execution.

The emotions coming out of this moment would become a core part of The Heartwood Crown. The horror of someone losing their life over a VCR. The recognition of how messy it is to seek justice. Do we consider issues like this thief’s poverty? Why is justice harsher if he steals from the rich and influential? Wasn’t another injustice created by killing this man? What does that mean for his family, his friends, his community? What is the role of government and the police force here? And, years later, realizing that this sort of thing happens here in the United States, too… that too often terrible costs are paid for small crimes.

The Heartwood Crown is the second book in a trilogy. I already had the big idea for the series overall: There’s a fantasy world called the Sunlit Lands that’s only open to teenagers. What’s more, to cross from our world into the Sunlit Lands they have to be teens who have experienced tragedy or true injustice in their personal lives.

And I already had the main characters, carrying over from the first book, The Crescent Stone:
Madeline Oliver is a privileged American with a terminal illness.

Shula Bishara is a Syrian war orphan.

Jason Wu lied to his parents, and his sister died as a result.

Darius Walker had a loved one stolen away by the magical people of the Sunlit Lands.

The big idea I was lacking was a theme. I knew that I wanted to explore issues of injustice, generational wrongs, revenge, mercy, and forgiveness, but I was having a hard time narrowing all that down.

I had plenty of in-universe ways to explore those themes. Madeline discovers her terminal illness was the result of magical interference in her life. There are people in the Sunlit Lands called the Scim who have been in generations of poverty because of another people group, the Elenil. Shula is dealing with the loss of her parents and siblings. And all these teenagers had the passion and desire to fix the world, they were looking for solutions.

The intersection of injustice and the question “what do we do about it?” finally brought my big idea into focus: exploring the myth of redemptive violence.

My whole life I’ve been taught that violence is the solution to injustice. Entire genres of movies taught me that if someone threatened my loved ones, I should hunt the bad guys down and kill them. The government taught me that if there’s an evil regime somewhere in the world, we should go to war. When I was a child, some people in my religious tradition even taught me that a loving God required not just death but violence in response to evil actions. “It’s only through violence that we can have peace,” they would say. It sounds like a George Orwell quote, but that’s the message of redemptive violence. It’s what leads us to places where criminals are executed for stealing a VCR or selling loose cigarettes.

Fantasy novels often embrace this idea. We have to kill the evil king, fire bomb the city with dragons, build our undead army, or find the magic spear that can slaughter our enemies. It’s not that other tools don’t exist, but if there’s injustice we reach instinctively for the sword.

So now that I had the big idea, I had to flesh it out. Darius already had a magic sword and a thirst for revenge, so I sent him off for the traditional quest: build an army, then find and kill the evil king.

Meanwhile, Madeline’s perspective changes as she confronts her own mortality. She doesn’t want to kill anyone – her own impending death is more than she can bear — she just wants to fix the world. Does she have the moral imagination to find a solution? Is power and violence required to change the world?

Shula is wrestling with the violent deaths of her own family… and how could anything other than a violent response be sufficient?

And Jason is dealing with the very real question that haunts many of us: How can he forgive himself?

This led, of course, to flying cats and swamp monsters and necromancers and a kitten-sized unicorn named Delightful Glitter Lady. There are unbreakable oaths and dirigibles and enchanted shackles and – yes – revenge. Secrets. Sacrifice. It’s still a fantasy novel, after all!

Ursula K. LeGuin said, “Imagination is the instrument of ethics. There are metaphors besides battle, many choices besides war, and most ways of doing good do not, in fact, involve killing anybody. Fantasy is good at thinking about those other ways.”

Twenty years ago a man was executed for stealing from an acquaintance of mine. Today there are spaces where our culture keeps pushing us, over and over, toward violence. The Big Idea for The Heartwood Crown is that maybe, just maybe we can expand our moral imagination to find new solutions to the problems that plague us. As Jason often says in the book, we have to learn to change our story. That was a little frustrating as the author since he would never do what I wanted (he refuses to fight warriors, confront dragons, or accept the consequences of magic), but it’s good advice for us in real life.


The Heartwood Crown: Amazon|Barnes and Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Here’s a link to the first couple chapters of the book. Matt’s website and Twitter account.


A Father- Daughter Photo Interlude

Athena finalized her next semester’s class schedule today, and one of her classes is on digital photography. This got me talking about how the camera and the eye don’t really see the same thing at all, and then taking pictures of her with my 28mm – 300mm lens at different focal lengths so she could see how much it changed the apparent shape of her face (very generally, if you’re doing portraiture, the higher your focal length is in millimeters, the flatter and wider someone’s face is going to look). Then we also talked about how I used photo software to work with pictures after I took them, and how what you do in Photoshop (and other programs and plugins) can change the photo.

The photo above, for example, was shot with a 28mm focal length, then tweaked in software to fix facial distortion, lighting and skin tone evenness, and then turned monochromatic, with grain and a border added. The idea was not to turn the photo into some obvious and unrealistic Facetune slider-fest (although sometimes that’s fun to do), but to at least initially bring what comes out of the camera closer to what the human eye sees, and then find a visual presentation that compliments the subject. Mind you, this is what photographers have done pretty much since the advent of photography; the only difference is that digital tools make it quicker and easier (and cheaper!) to do, without the need to devote space in one’s home for a darkroom and its attendant poisonous chemicals.

I don’t think it will come as a surprise to people that when I post pictures of Athena and Krissy, I run them through Photoshop to clean them up and to make them more visually interesting. I am occasionally asked whether either my daughter or wife ever take a bad photo; the answer is yes, of course, it’s just I never show you any of those. I show you my bad photos. That should be enough for anyone. Anyway, I’ve from time to time had people tell me that they thought I probably prettied up pictures of Krissy but then they met her in real life and realized that no, she actually does look like that, which I find gratifying. As I noted before, I want the pictures I take to accurately reflect life.

It was fun to talk photography with Athena because it’s a hobby of mine, and it’s fun to explain your hobby to others, and also because Athena is already a pretty decent photographer herself, so talking about something she already has an eye for I think will make her eye even better in the long run. I suspect she’ll do just fine in her class this next semester.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dee Garretson

There’s the old adage that history is written by the winners — but history, and who gets to tell it, is more complicated than that. As Dee Garretson will tell you, as she talks about her new novel, Paradox Hunt.


My son used to believe I had eyes in the back of my head, to the point where he would comb through my hair looking for them. At those times I would tell him I could make the eyes disappear whenever I wanted to and he fell for that as well. It wasn’t something he wanted to believe, unlike Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, all who rewarded his beliefs with good things. He believed me because I was a person in authority. I feel a tiny bit bad about it now, but then it made my life easier so he wouldn’t pinch his sister in the backseat when I was driving.

We also had a kid in our neighborhood with an amazing imagination who convinced the other kids they could get rabies from touching a tree that a rabid animal had climbed. While that kid didn’t have any authority, he could tell stories and sound absolutely convincing so they believed him. I really hope the boy grew up to be a writer instead of a politician.

It’s easy to shape the beliefs of a few young children, but people with power and reach can manipulate the beliefs not just of the young and gullible but of the educated as well. I’ve thought about this for a long time. I studied history in college and I’ve wanted to write a story with this theme ever since I read an article in the Chicago Tribune about how the Chinese government didn’t broadcast the 1969 moon landing and decided their people didn’t need to know it happened. It happens in the U.S. as well-we hear about far too many textbooks that try to lessen the impact of slavery or promote a revisionist history of the Civil War.

So the big idea for Paradox Hunt arose from all of this: How do you know the history you are taught is true?

Paradox Hunt is about two young people from two different cultures, and each culture has manipulated the accounts of their histories to keep the powerful in their societies in control.

The galaxy is on the brink of chaos and Earth has grown repressive over the centuries, touting democratic principles while ruling with an iron fist. Sixteen-year-old Quinn Neen has discovered the truth behind the façade and he is determined not to be part of the elite who let the horrors continue.

I wanted to take this story beyond just having the characters fight against authority. Both Quinn and Mira, the main characters, benefit from this power structure. Their families are in charge. What does it take to move beyond your own self interest to do what’s right? It’s easy to search for truth and rail against power if you don’t have it, but if you benefit from it, it’s so much more difficult.

I wrote this story as a future where Earth is in control of much of the galaxy, because it’s easy to imagine that given humans’ propensity to colonize what they want, it’s a likely way in which the future may play out. I wrote it as young adult fiction, not because I want to go back to being a teenager (!), but because much like writers trying to get published for the first time, young adults have that mix of naivety and bravado to keep going even when it seems like everyone around you is trying to slap you down.

Save the galaxy? Sure, we can try that. Why not? Who says we can’t?

I like to write about people who are optimistic enough to believe they can make a difference. We all need those stories in this day and age. Oh, and just for fun, I’ve included a diva parrot, because why can’t there be parrots on space ships?


Paradox Hunt: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.


I’ve Got a Lot of Writing to Do Today, So I Offer You This Flower in Lieu of a Lengthy Post

I saw it on my walk yesterday. It’s lovely. Have a good Monday, if you can.


Dayton, August 4, 2019

Lois Oglesby, 27. 

Jordan Cofer, 22.

Saeed Saleh, 38.

Derrick Fudge, 57.

Logan Turner, 30.

Nicholas Cumer, 25.

Thomas McNichols, 25.

Beatrice Warren-Curtis, 36.

Monica Brickhouse, 39.

For those who need it, here’s my piece from three years ago on “thoughts and prayers.”


Oh, Look, Another Silly Kvetch About Me

An author who actively dislikes me and what I write laments on Twitter that in his opinion the era of Heinlein and hard SF has been replaced by — Me! Oh, and JK Rowling and movies and black women who do math.

Leaving aside whether that particular assertion is accurate (and even if it is, whether my placement on this list is motivated more by animus against me than my actual importance, because in terms of the cultural impact of the things listed, I am a very distant fourth behind Potter/JK Rowling, Hidden Figures and the entire medium of film), some thoughts on this:

1. I like the idea that someone who dislikes who I am and what I do nevertheless has to begrudgingly admit that I represent a principal mode of commercial science fiction right now. Yes, yes, he hates it, and me. Oh, well.

2. It wasn’t that long ago that I was considered “the next Heinlein” — seriously, the Publishers Weekly review for Old Man’s War said it “reads like an original work by the late grand master,” and since then I’ve been more or less continuing a “golden age of SF” vibe in my work, updated for the current era (note that this updating is the part fellows like him whine about). So there’s no small irony in complaining that the Era of Heinlein has been superseded by the Era of Scalzi.

3. Imagine claiming to enjoy hard SF, and yet somehow being disapproving of the popularity of Hidden Figures, in which three women employ their understanding of for-the-time-cutting-edge math, physics and technology to allow humans conquer space. It’s literally everything hard SF aspires to be.

4. Anyone lamenting that film is a now major mode of popular science fiction knows nothing about either film or science fiction, and the popular marriage of the two which goes back at least to 1902 and Georges Méliès, i.e., long before the age of Heinlein and “hard SF.”

5. Grousing on the rise of Potter and Rowling is like a music snob griping about the rise of the Beatles. It’s a once-in-a-generation cultural event, and you might as well complain about the tide coming in, and going back out again.

This fellow may at least take comfort in the idea that my era will one day pass — indeed, might be already passing as we speak! Unfortunately for him, what comes after me (as in, is here right now) in science fiction is NK Jemisin, and Mary Robinette Kowal, and Yoon Ha Lee and so many more astounding talents like them. All of whom I strongly suspect this particular fellow will find some reason for objection. “Some reason.”

The problem isn’t really that the “Age of Heinlein” is passing in science fiction. The creative mode that Heinlein wrote in still exists and will continue to exist, inasmuch as I and many other people write in it, and do just fine, creatively and financially, with it. The same with Niven (who is as it happens still alive and still creating) and his mode, and all the other folks working in the hard and golden age-style SF modes. It and they are still there and doing well. The “problem” is that a certain sort of person who claims science fiction for his own is no longer centered in the genre, and the genre no longer listens to his demand to be centered in it, and is doing just fine without him being centered there.

At least this fellow has the sense to admit it’s happened. It has. The genre isn’t going back.


New Books and ARCs, 8/2/19

For the first weekend of August, a nice collection of new books and ARCs for you to consider. What here is calling to you? Share in the comments!

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Gretchen McCulloch

Hey, did you know you’re on the internet right now? It’s true! And as it happens, the internet has been doing things to the way language is used for almost as long as there has been an internet. And now, author Gretchen McCulloch is here to tell you a little bit about that, why she felt that it was interesting enough to capture in her book, titled, naturally enough, Because Internet, and how, in some ways, a book is an ideal repository of information about an electronic medium.


In 2014, I started writing a book about internet language. Every so often, while I was working on it, I would look at myself and think, surely this is a fool’s errand. How could I possibly sum up the entirety of the living, breathing language of the internet within a couple hundred static pages? 

That wasn’t my only problem. I also had to figure out who I was writing this book for. Imaging the audience is a crucial part of writing for me — it inspires my jokes and metaphors and cultural references, even though I know it’s never completely true. When I write for somewhere like The Toast or Wired, the audience is already very clear in my imagination, a joyful companion while I write. But I could imagine these audiences because I was already reading these news sites — writing for them is adding my voice to an existing chorus. A book doesn’t have an audience when it doesn’t exist yet. 

The big idea that solved both of these problems together was deciding that I was writing to the reader of the future. If it was going to be several years before anyone read the words I started drafting in 2014, why not acknowledge how weird that was and cast my sights even further forward? If any book about the internet was inevitably going to be out of date sooner or later, why not write it with an eye to the reader of, say, 2049 or 2099, just as much as towards the reader of 2019? 

Writing towards the future provided useful practical guidance. One thing I had to figure out was exactly which bits of the internet needed additional context. When I was writing towards the reader of the present, I’d worried about seeming condescending by explaining what Snapchat or Usenet was (for two, ahem, very different audiences). But when I thought of myself as writing towards the future, I realized that I was grateful to writers of the past for their vivid explanations of now-dead technologies, and felt less self-conscious about necessary asides. 

Another practical thing that I did for the benefit of future readers was to safeguard against link rot, a problem I faced constantly when trying to access urls from old articles. I archived all of the links mentioned in the book via the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, and made a donation to help them stay in operation, which I then made a note of in the acknowledgements section. This allows readers of the future to know what to do with any urls that stop working, acknowledges the important work that the Internet Archive does, and encourages other authors to do likewise. 

Writing for the future also let me write a book that wouldn’t sound dated quite so quickly.  I grew tired of reading “now” or “current” or “modern” and flipping to the copyright page, so I became conscientious about using absolute time references like particular years and decades. I noticed the amusing datedness of words like “Web site” and “E-mail” in earlier books about technology. Linguistic conservatism caters to the reader of the past, but the reader of the past doesn’t exist anymore — someone in 1999 can’t bend time and read a book published in 2019. The reader of the future does exist — someone in 2039 can very well pick up a book published in 2019. Why should I not, in my turn, aim to avoid things that are likely to seem hilariously out of date to a reader a few decades hence? (I’ll give you a clue: one of them is uppercase “internet.”) 

But those were largely cosmetic changes. Writing towards the future also changed the structure of the whole book. Rather than worry about whether I was chronicling a complete list of all of the possible functions for emoji or punctuation, all of the possible memes or social media platforms, I went for a longer timeline of where each of these things came from — all caps has precursors in Victorian letters, irony punctuation has proposals back to 1575, people doodled in postcards before emoji came on the scene, and so on. I started aiming for a bigger picture of how each of these things fit into communication, one that could still be true even if we replace all of the specific sites and tools we’re using.

I found out that, paradoxically, a book can be bigger than the internet. The very constraints of a book — its linearity, its lack of updates — are also its greatest strengths. I can be far more confident that each reader will have a roughly similar experience of a book, rather than spidering off in all directions as with hypertext. When I work on an article or the podcast, I have to assume that each individual post or episode might be the first time someone has even heard of linguistics. There’s no designated reading order for the internet. But with a book, I have the luxury of being able to take people through a sequence of chapters, letting ideas build on top of each other, developing a fuller argument. It’s a smaller space, but it can support bigger ideas. 

In the end, I wrote a book about the internet by not trying to compete with the internet on its home turf. If you want to look up the latest memes and slang, there’s always websites like Know Your Meme and Urban Dictionary and Emojipedia. But if you want something that tries to take a step back and see the internet as if we’re already living in the future, well, may I interest you in a book? 


Because Internet: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Listen to her podcast. Follow her on Twitter.  

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