The Big Idea: Fran Wilde

Today, award-winning author Fran Wilde has a shocking confession to make! About something she said! Here! And yes, it involves her new novel, Horizon. What will this confession be? Will there be regret involved? Are you prepared for what happens next?!?

FRAN WILDE:

Dear readers of John Scalzi’s blog, for the past three years, I’ve been keeping secrets.

I’m not sorry.

Trilogies are a delicate thing. They are a community of books unto themselves. They inform and support one another; their themes and actions ripple and impact one another. They have their own set of rules. Among them: Write down the main character’s eye color or favorite food so you don’t forget it. You’ll regret using that hard-to-spell naming convention by the middle of your second book. Destroy something in book one, you’re not going to magically have it to rely on in book three — at least not without some major effort. Everything gathers — each choice, each voice.

Trilogies are, by intent, more than the sum of their parts.

And, when brought together, a trilogy’s largest ideas sometimes appear in the gathered shadows of what seemed like big ideas at the time.

In Updraft, book one of the Bone Universe trilogy, what began to crumble was the system that upheld the community of the bone towers. It didn’t look like it then. So I didn’t tell you when I wrote my first Big Idea.

Instead, the first time I visited this blog, I wrote: “At its heart, Updraft is about speaking and being heard and — in turn — about hearing others…”

That was true – especially in the ways Updraft explored song as memory and singing and voice. But it was also kind of a fib. I knew where the series was headed, and voice was only the tip of the spear.

I planned to return here a year later to write about leadership, and I did — and, I wrote about demagoguery too, and abut having a book come out during a charged political season. That was September 2016, Cloudbound, the second book in the series was just out, and wow, that post seems somewhat innocent and naive now. But not any less important.

Again, saying the big idea in Cloudbound was leadership was true on its face, but it was also a an act of omission. And again, singing came into play — in that songs in Cloudbound were being adjusted and changed, as were messages between leaders.

With Horizon, I’m going to lay it all out there for you. Horizon is about community.

Structurally, Horizon is narrated by several different first person voices — including Kirit, Nat, and Macal, a magister and the brother of a missing Singer. These three voices come from different places in the Bone Universe’s geography, and they weave together to form a greater picture of the world, and its threats. A fourth voice appears only through a song — a new song — that is written during the course of Horizon, primarily by one character but with the help of their community. That song is the thread that ties the voices together, and, one hopes, the new community as well.

And, like Horizon, for me, the big idea for the Bone Universe series is also community. How to defend one, how to lead one, how to salvage as much as you can of one and move forward towards rebuilding it.

In my defense, I did leave some clues along the way. I shifted narrators between Updraft and Cloudbound in order to broaden the point of view and reveal more about the lead characters and the world, both between the books (how Nat and Kirit are seen each by the other vs. how they see themselves), and within them. I shared with readers the history of the bone towers and how that community, and the towers themselves, formed. I showed you the community’s [something] – that their means of keeping records and remembering was based on systems that could be used to both control messages and redefine them. I made the names of older laws and towers much more complicated to pronounce (and, yes, spell SIGH), versus the simpler names for newer things. This community had come together, then grown into something new.

The evolution of singing in the Bone Universe is, much like the idea of community, something that can be seen in pieces, but that resolves more when looked at from the perspective of all three books together.

Remember that solo voice — Kirit’s — singing quite badly that first book? In the second book, Nat’s voice joins Kirit’s — a solo, again, but because we can still hear Kirit, and because we know her, it becomes a kind of duet. In the third book, three voices present separate parts of the story, and when they all come together, that forms a connected whole.

When you listen to a group of people sing, sometimes one voice stands out, then another. Then, when multiple voices join in for the chorus, the sound becomes a different kind of voice. One with additional depth and resonance.

That’s the voice of a community. That drawing together of a group into something that is more than the sum of its parts. It is an opportunity, a way forward, out of a crumbling system and into something new and better.  

That’s the big idea.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Annalee Newitz

In her debut novel Autonomous, former i09 editor-in-chief and current science and tech writer and editor Annalee Newitz gets under the skin of the healthcare industry and thinks about all the ways it’s less-than-entirely healthy for us… and what that means for our future, and the future she’s written in her novel.

ANNALEE NEWITZ:

There’s a scene from the Torchwood series Miracle Day that I will never be able to wash out of my brain. After humans stop being able to die for mysterious reasons, our heroes tour a hospital full of people who are hideously immortal: their bodies pancaked and spindled and melted, they lie around in agony wishing for oblivion. For all its exaggerated body horror, that moment feels creepily realistic in our age of medicine that can keep people alive without giving them anything like quality of life.

Torchwood: Miracle Day wasn’t my first taste of healthcare dystopia, but it made a huge impression because it distilled down one of the fundamental ideas I see this subgenre: some lives are worse than death. This is certainly the message in countless pandemic films, where the infected are ravening, mindless zombies. Killing them is a mercy.

This idea takes a slightly different form in books like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl. Both narratives toy with what it means when people are turned into medical experiments, like futuristic versions of the Tuskegee Study. We see some ruling class of people deciding that another class should serve as its organ donors or genetic beta testers. What if somebody were treating us like lab rats, as if our lives didn’t matter?

And then there are the false healthcare utopias, which I find the most disturbing because they remind me of listening to U.S. senators trying to sell the idea that they have a “much better plan” than Obamacare—even though I know people who will die under these “better plans.” Politicians have probably been pushing false healthcare utopias since at least the 19th century, but in science fiction its roots can clearly be traced to Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World. In that novel, everyone is medicating with Soma just to deal with how regimented and limited their lives are.

False healthcare utopias can take many forms, and they overlap with more familiar dystopias too. Some deal with surveillance. In the chilling novel Harmony, Project Itoh imagines a future Japan where the government monitors everyone’s microbiomes by tracking everything that goes into and out of their bodies (yep, there’s toilet surveillance).

Sometimes the false healthcare utopia is just a precursor to a more familiar zombie dystopia like 28 Days Later. Consider, for example, our extreme overuse of antibiotics. Though it appears that we can cure pretty much any infection with antibiotics, we’re very close to living in a world where antibiotics no longer work at all. One of the most terrifying books I’ve read this year is science journalist Maryn McKenna’s book Big Chicken, which is about how the agriculture industry depends on antibiotics to keep animals “healthy” in filthy, overcrowded conditions. This is creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are coming for us, pretty much any day now. That’s right–penicillin-doped chickens are the real culprits in I Am Legend.

I’m fascinated by how many false healthcare utopias depend on coercive neuroscience. Often, brain surgery is involved—we see this in John Christopher’s Tripods and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, both about so-called utopian worlds created by neurosurgical interventions that restrict freedom of thought. Maybe these stories focus on brains so much because these are fundamentally stories about lies, and brains are, after all, the organ that we use for lying.

When I started work on my novel Autonomous (out today! yes it is!), I knew I wanted to explore the lies of the pharmaceutical industry and its gleaming ads promising a better life to those who can afford a scrip. One of the protagonists, Jack, has become a pharmaceutical pirate so that she can bring expensive, patented medicine to poor people who need it. But she also sells a few of what she calls “funtime worker drugs” on the side, to fund her Robin Hood activities and keep her submarine in good repair.

Those funtime drugs are why things go sideways for Jack. She sells some pirated Zacuity, a “productivity” drug that I loosely based on Provigil or Adderall. It gets people really enthusiastic about work, but it has some unexpected side-effects that the pharma company Zaxy has suppressed. Now Jack has to stop the drug from killing more people, while also evading two deadly agents sent by Zaxy: a robot named Paladin and a human named Eliasz.

So Autonomous is chase story with some hot robot sex, but it’s also very much a book about how pharma companies sell us an idea of “health” that is actually really unhealthy.

Today pharma companies market drugs the way Disney markets Star Wars movies, and for good reason. Drugs like Adderall and Provigil are supposed to make us feel better and more competent—or at the very least distract us—for a few blissful hours. Just like a movie. I’m not trying to say there’s a problem with taking drugs (or watching movies) to feel good. Nor am I saying that people don’t need anti-depressants and other meds to treat psychological problems. The issue is when these drugs are overprescribed for enhancement, and “feeling really good” becomes a terrible kind of norm. Pharma companies want us to believe that if we aren’t incredibly attentive, productive, and happy every day, there must be something wrong. This paves the way for an ideal of mental health that almost nobody can (or should) live up to.

There’s another, deeper problem that’s caused by selling medicine as if it were a form of entertainment. Nobody would ever argue that going to see the new Star Wars movie is a right. It’s just a luxury for people with disposable income. If we see medicine like that too, it’s easy to fall for the lie that our healthcare system is great even though it only serves the richest people in the U.S.

In the world of Autonomous, the pharma companies are full of guys like Martin Shkreli, jacking up the prices on medicine because they can. They get away with it because so many people in the U.S. believe that anyone can get medicine if they really deserve it. Only a lie of that magnitude could make it seem fair when working class people can’t afford to treat AIDS-related complications. Or cancer. Or a heart infection.

Autonomous is a book about lies. But more importantly, it’s about what happens to the people who see through those lies and try to do something about it. Everyone deserves to have medicine. It is a right, not a privilege. Until we recognize that, I’ll be hanging out with the pirates.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Douglas Wynne

In Cthulhu Blues, author Douglas Wynne wants you to catch the waves. Or perhaps more accurately, to appreciate the fact that the waves already have you — and show something else between them.

DOUGLAS WYNNE:

Back when I was studying music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music, I had a mystical epiphany that didn’t even involve recreational chemistry. It came to me in the classroom while looking at a handout the instructor had passed around. She was about to present an overview of AM and FM radio technology and wanted us to take a look at the wave spectrum within which those broadcast frequencies are nested. On the left, the diagram showed the subsonic vibrations elephants transmit through the ground to communicate over long distances. Moving to the right, it worked its way up through the octaves of audible sound waves and then on to ultrasonic, radio, microwave, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays.

My education up to that point was far more focused on playing guitar than on physics, but I had read about how even matter is essentially composed of waves—or particles, depending on the method of measurement—vibrating at high enough rates to create the illusion of solidity. Still, seeing it all laid out like that, bottom to top, made a profound impression on me. It reminded me that all human perception is just a glimpse through the slats of a fence, a fragmentary picture of a reality we can only experience with a biological bias and a crude, albeit ever expanding, set of tools to fill in the blanks.

It’s a humbling idea. One that I later remembered I’d first encountered in the horror story “From Beyond” by H.P. Lovecraft. In that tale, a scientist discovers alien life forms writhing in the air all around him by tuning his perception with a resonator device he calls “The Ultraviolet.”

When I set out to reimagine the Cthulhu Mythos for the SPECTRA Files trilogy, this idea of exposure to special frequencies opening up human perception to other dimensions and entities was a major element I wanted to explore. After all, the closest thing to real magic I’ve experienced in my own life is the way that music—invisible wave patterns in the air—has the power to open the human heart to unexpected dimensions of feeling.

Music plays a major role in the SPECTRA books. There’s a cosmic boom box that houses a lab-grown larynx, a grand piano that acts as a portal to infernal realms, and a sea organ borrowed from a real architectural instrument in Zadar, Croatia, that plays haunting chords when the waves roll into its chambers. But the main character, Becca Philips, does her work higher up in the wave spectrum. She’s an urban explorer and photographer who shoots infrared photos of abandoned buildings in flood-ravaged Boston. Becca finds an eerie spirituality in the ghostly light emitted by weeds and vines in that range. But when her photos pick up fractal tentacles seeping into our world from an adjacent dimension, she is caught between cultists employing weird tech to evoke monstrous gods and a covert agency that suspects she might be one of them.

From water to sound to light, there are waves rolling through the entire trilogy. But the wave spectrum isn’t the big idea, perception is: how we see the world and our place in it.

Becca Philips is a character defined by her sensitivity. She experienced loss at an early age and continues to suffer from recurrent depression compounded by Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s her sensitivity to light and shadow, her unique way of looking at the world, that makes her a great photographer. And it’s her unique perception that entangles her in the unfolding apocalypse and puts her in a position to do something about it. In book one (Red Equinox), she willingly exposes herself to the harmonics that align the human plane with that of the monsters, an act which makes her more vulnerable even as it dispenses with the illusion of a benign reality so she might be empowered to save others from what lurks just beyond that thin veneer. Becca chose this vision as an act of heroism and chose to keep it when offered a drug that would make it go away. But sometimes the cost of courage is that your contact with dark things changes you and makes you one of them.

I knew from the start that as a sensitive, Becca would also be susceptible to the telepathic dreams of Cthulhu slumbering on the ocean floor sooner or later. I knew she would struggle with her sanity and ultimately have to make a judgment about the sanity of mankind at large and whether our supremacy on the planet is ultimately for the best. As a vegetarian and animal rescuer, Becca sees the value of all life. But when you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss looks into you, and in Cthulhu Blues Becca finally has to grapple with the question of whether or not the Great Old Ones might be better for life on Earth than mankind in the long run. The crux of her crisis is that the same empathetic eye that drives her to save animals, children, and civilization, also opens her to the possibility that the cultists might be right to topple the human race from its throne. She has to ask herself what it is in the spectrum of consciousness that sets humanity apart. If we’re not at the top of the food chain anymore, what makes us unique and worth saving?

I’ve always thought it’s our capacity for compassion. Our ability to see others, even the wretched and subhuman, the animal and the alien, with a kind eye. But if we retreat into the tunnel vision of fear at the first scent of crisis, then what do we have left that makes us the good guys? When you’re caught between a militant covert agency and a radical religious cult, are dark gods really worse than white devils?

—-

Cthulhu Blues: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|JournalStone

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

The Big Idea: Claire Eddy, Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Anoud and Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby

Here in the US, our fate and fortune was tied up in Iraq for many years. But what does the future hold for that country now? Iraq + 100, an anthology of Iraqi science fiction, offers several views of possibilities. Now, the acquiring editor and three authors from the anthology talk a bit about the book and the futures therein.

Claire Eddy, Senior Editor at Tor/Forge

I got a submission last fall from a small UK publisher and once I started reading I couldn’t stop. The editor of the anthology, Hassan Blasim, asked a simple question–how could you imagine your nation 100 years from now?

The question posed to Iraqi writers (those still in their homeland and those who have joined a world-wide diaspora), has produced an amazing project, a roadmap of what their country might look like following the disastrous foreign invasion of 2003.

Simply put, I believe that Iraq+100 is a piece of fiction that has the potential to make a difference.

I don’t say this lightly.  I am very passionate about all the projects that I take on, but Iraq + 100 has a particularly special importance to me. These writers have given us not just wonderful stories, but the collection itself has a unique voice that I think deserves to be heard. Storytelling has always had the power to not only entertain, but to inform and change hearts. I truly believe that this project has the ability to do these very things.

I think a project like Iraq + 100 would do well at any point in time. In the environment that we find ourselves now, however, I think this book has a much bigger potential.

Ibrahim Al-Marashi, author of “Najufa”

My story “Najufa” is based on my first trip to the Iraqi Shi’a shrine cities of Najaf and Kufa as an adult with my father and mother in 2010. The tensions that drive the relationship between the narrator and his grandfather in the story is based on the tensions I had with my own father during that trip. My father was born in the east African island of Zanzibar, as a result of his father escaping Najaf during the British occupation of Iraq in 1920 for taking part in an insurgency then. My father returned to Iraq in the sixties, went to medical school in Baghdad, and would visit Najaf and his relatives there often.  However, my father did not travel to Iraq when Saddam Hussein was in power from 1979 to 2003.

I expected the trip in 2010 to be a nostalgic “home coming” for him, but as an old man in his seventies, he seemed oblivious to the whole place or experience. He was more concerned with drinking tea and relating his life experiences to any random person in the tea house than visiting the shrines.  I compared his indifference to the spirituality inside the shrine complex to my observations at the same time of the younger pilgrims there, some who wanted to leave after a few minutes of praying, since their mobile phones are not allowed within the confines of any shrine, as terrorists use them to detonate explosives remotely.  Everyone had to check in the mobile phone outside the shrine, like a coat check, and without phones, that generation became fidgety.  After 2003, regardless of whether one was from Iraq or the “West,” what united us all was addiction to technology. In the story I wanted to project the evolution of how we will become the technology 100 years later, even in an ancient shrine city in Iraq.

Anoud, author of “Kahramana”

Kahramana is a slave girl in a story from A Thousand and One Nights which originates from the Abbasi Era in Mesopotamia, a golden age of enlightenment after which the region fell under conqueror after conqueror and women were further marginalized.

A Thousand and One Nights is one of the few literary examples I recall from the region where women are strong, dangerous characters that move a plot. Usually we’re either ‘damsels in distress’ needing the actions of men or we’re ‘conniving’ and ‘seductive’ inspiring men to act. Women did not swing a sword, not exactly. No surprise there, most of the authors are men.

A Thousand and One Nights did reflect on the norms of its times in the sense that women were spoils of war and slavery existed and was accepted. But women and slaves in those stories, like Kahramana, could be dangerous, independent, smart. Their husbands or keepers were their subordinates in the plot. They had little or no power to move the story along.

My story is more of a pun on A Thousand and One Nights. I make fun of the status quo between east and west, refugees and those on the receiving end. I chose her simply because Kahramana resonated with me as a child. I often passed by a fountain in Baghdad’s Kahramana Square that fascinated me. The fountain was built by a famous Iraqi sculpture in the 1970s to depict Kahramana (sometimes called Morjana) the slave girl from the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.

Kahramana was standing tall on top of a pile of large jars holding a jug and pouring down onto the jars underneath her feet. According to the story the slave girl was slaying the thieves by dousing them with boiling oil on then sealing each jar shut. We, as Baghdadis, were celebrating a woman slyer. We, in a country where women need men’s permission for anything. And I, the push-over little girl, found her both disturbing and amazing. She just stuck with me.

Though I have come a long way from the timid ‘good girl’ I was raised to be and I like to think I can stand up for myself, I still get pushed around because I’m of the wrong gender, I behave inappropriately for my social class, am of the wrong nationality, standing on the wrong side of a border. It’s fucking endless. And when I want to fly off the handle I remember Kahramana standing over the heads of thieves in a Square in Baghdad, killing them all, indifferent.

Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby, author of “Baghdad Syndrome”

The idea for Baghdad Syndrome was unclear at first, thinking about it brought hopes and fears together. Hence, I began to imagine a future in which Iraq heals with a scar, the scar is the syndrome.

Baghdad Syndrome is a collection of physical and mental symptoms reflecting what people in Iraq are going through. Inspired by my last visit to Iraq, I looked more worried about the future than people living there, I saw the syndrome in almost everyone! The heart rate increases with every sudden explosion, and fear of loss. The depression comes from uncertainty, where people do not really know whether they will return home if they went out. Hallucinations and nightmares, due to the verge of reality with unbelievable events. Yet, their faces were smiley, living the moment and kept smiling to survive. Amusingly the painful reality was turned into humour. The blindness in the Syndrome is a metaphor to the endless electricity cuts in Baghdad, leaving a city that loves lights in darkness. Another darkness is the sudden loss of beloved ones, a point in life where nothing else could remain the same afterwards.

The inspiration to link the syndrome with genetic mutations came from my work. During that year (2014), I was writing a report about health-related human rights in Iraq. Revising international reports showed that health was underrepresented. Back then I contacted the Ministry of Human Rights in Iraq, it was a hopeless attempt because having no internal governmental connections means the request will be overlooked. Yet, I received a prompt reply from a local employee striving to share internal reports from several parts of the country. These reports demonstrated increased rates of congenital malformations in newborns in areas still compiled with war wastes. However, the symptoms of Baghdad Syndrome are far away from being a relatively immediate physical impact.

Writing about the future was not an easy task, I needed a link to tell the story. My style of writing is through the lenses of ancient history and riddles. My emotional link with Scheherazade’s statue in Baghdad had always inspired me, I had the sense she was watching and telling stories about what’s happening around her. With my admiration of A Thousand and One Nights, I thought Scheherazade could be my witness and say my riddle this time. When I had the context, the syndrome, and Scheherazade, I could write part of myself in each character in the story to finalise it. After finishing the story I realised, I always sketched the statue with a background of buildings and a pigeon around! Looks like my version of the future was in my sub-consciousness after all!

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Iraq + 100: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Books-A-Million|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Follow Dr. Zhraa Alhaboby on Twitter. Follow Ibrahim Al-Marashi on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Axie Oh

From traded video tapes to the printed word, author Axie Oh’s debut novel Rebel Seoul has had quite the journey. Here she is to tell you how it all came together.

AXIE OH:

The “Big Idea” for Rebel Seoul was super soldiers, specifically female super soldiers, but let’s go back to the beginning.

In 2001, I became addicted to Cartoon Network’s Toonami, a television programming block that brought English dubbed anime into the West. The block ran late at night in what was called the Midnight Run. So, as an 11-year-old schoolgirl with reasonable parents, I had to set a timer to record the shows on the VCR. To make it easier, my friends and I would take turns recording the shows and would meet on the weekends to exchange tapes like some sort of grade school smuggling ring.

My two favorite shows were Sailor Moon and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. Though both anime, these shows were in vastly different genres. Sailor Moon, about a Tokyo schoolgirl with magical powers, was in the “magical girl” genre, which as the name suggests, featured girls with magical powers, while Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, about young men who pilot giant robots called Gundams, was in the “mecha” genre, which focused primarily on robots and elements of science fiction.

I equally loved both of these shows. In Sailor Moon, I found an adventure story with an all female cast, a story of romance with a dashing boy who oftentimes was in distress, and a heroine to believe in, to see myself in (she was blonde, but she was Asian!) and to love with a fangirl’s unwavering devotion. In Gundam Wing, I found an intelligent war story of rebellion and sacrifice that moved me to the core, a cast of beautiful boys to swoon over (be still my adolescent heart!) and some amazing visual eye candy in the Gundams themselves – massive robots blowing up stuff Is. The. Shit.

This was the beginning of my love, not only for anime, but for media in all its forms: TV shows, films, video games, Korean dramas, K-pop, comics, and of course, books.

Rebel Seoul is the second book I’ve ever completed, and my debut novel. Before Rebel Seoul, I’d written a young adult fantasy, as well as several short stories and flash pieces, some of which can be found in obscure pockets of the Internet.

The inspiration for Rebel Seoul came from a dream. In the dream, a girl stood at the top of the tallest building in Seoul, South Korea, listening to a song as it drifted through the wind. The girl was crying. Somehow I knew she had never heard a song before. It made me think, what sort of person would have never heard a song before?

Answer: A government experiment, obviously.

I then built a world and story and characters around this dream image (or gif, really) that stayed with me through each revision of the novel, although it never made it into the novel itself. I imagine it’s in the prologue before the first scene. The government experiment became a super soldier project called “The Amaterasu Project,” where girls were transformed into weapons with codenames: “Ama” for girls with psychic and mental abilities, “Tera” for girls with physical abilities like increased strength and quick reflexes and “Su” for girls with both physical and mental abilities. I wanted to make the idea “big,” so I added giant robots.

So there I was, the big idea: female super soldiers piloting giant robots!

In a way, I feel like I combined those two anime I loved when I was a child. The girls were now the pilots saving a war-torn world.

As a 1st gen Korean American growing up in the U.S., I didn’t have a lot of mirrors in popular media. Discovering Toonami and watching these shows was one of the first times I ever saw people like me – beautiful, strong, courageous people – as heroes. Perhaps this is another big idea, or perhaps this is the big idea, that I wanted to write a book where my 11-year-old self could be the hero.

—-

Rebel Seoul: Amazon|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: TR Cameron

We all make mistakes — but as TR Cameron recounts regarding his new novel Trespassers, some mistakes are bigger than others.

TR CAMERON:

What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?

Thinking about my own contenders for that title is a nightmarish undertaking. I relive countless relationship blunders, work miscalculations, and poor life decisions. It’s a part of being human to have moments we would take back if we could, to avoid hurting others, to avoid hurting ourselves.

But to quote an ancient proverb, innumerable legal cases, and Caine from Matthew Woodring Stover’s brilliant Heroes Die, “You can’t unring the bell.”

Barring time travel, what is, is.

We are left with the fallen pieces of whatever we’ve broken and the challenge of reassembling them. But we know the fixed version will always be compromised, rendered weaker than the original, no matter how we try to mend the breaks. For small things, this is an acceptable finish, and we can resume our lives unburdened by the incident.

But what if the mistake is so big you can’t fix it?

This question lies at the heart of Trespassers. A young officer in charge of a battleship’s night shift makes a choice driven by a combination of ego and patriotism. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, Lieutenant Commander Anderson Cross’s decision would be a mistake of the first kind, easily fixed and put away. This time, it puts his ship on the path to disaster. For the rest of the series, he must contend with the realization that his decision directly results in a holy war that will claim countless lives. He must contend with the realization that his decision turned the dream of first contact with an alien race into a nightmare. Cross’s story is the Big Idea of the tale—how do we come to terms with a choice gone wrong?

Despite the best intentions, Cross makes a mistake—partly a result of his actions, partly a result of circumstance, but now entirely his to own. In facing this failure, he has more choices to make. Some of them naturally go awry because perfection is more often sought than achieved.

How can a person, any person, bear up under such intense pressure without shattering?

His long-time-friend and sometimes-romantic-partner Lieutenant Commander Kate Flynn faces her own set of choices as events unfold. She must decide how to help Cross overcome his error, how to tell him that his fear of confronting that failure is causing him to make more poor decisions. She has to choose whether to risk their friendship by telling him the hard truth.

Cross and Kate are you and I, are all of us. We consistently wrestle with the fallout from our own mistakes, and we strive to help others through the pain and confusion when they fall. Often, we find the edge of the thin line that separates help from harm only after we’ve left it behind.

These are the moments when we discover who we really are.

These are the moments when we identify our true friends.

These are the moments that make us.

For the characters in Trespassers, the stakes are monumental as they travel the thinnest of paths at the border of life and death. Hopefully, the mistakes we make in our daily lives have lesser impact. In both cases, these ongoing challenges we create for ourselves are pivotal in our learning, growth, and maturation. Each new mistake teaches us vital things about the world and our place in it.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca once said, “a gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a [person] perfected without trials.” Our mistakes are self-imposed trials, granted by the universe to inspire our growth. Our response to them may lead us on the path toward perfection—or at least toward a better self.

Perhaps the best result we can hope for is embodied in the Japanese practice of kintsugi, which finds beauty in the rejoining of things once broken. The restoration is made obvious with application of gold lacquer, and the glittering repairs add to the history of the item being preserved. The original then incorporates the art and vision of the restorer and becomes somehow greater for its destruction and resurrection.

Cross will grow through his own rejoining, or he will remain forever broken. Kate will grow through her efforts to help him bring his fractured pieces together, or she will sacrifice their relationship in the attempt. The rewards are high, and the risks higher.

I have undeniably grown as a result of my own mistakes, and though I don’t always have it in me to display them with pride, they are nonetheless a vital part of the person I am now. I sincerely hope you can say the same.

So, the Big Idea once more: how do we best face our mistakes? Perhaps the key to success is a simple shift of perspective—to abandon the natural desire to unring the bell and instead accept our trials as an opportunity to become. To remember, as John Campbell aptly put

it: “The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” That light reveals our true self.

Cross’s true self will be revealed against a backdrop of space battles, alien invaders, adventure, and enough explosions for three summer blockbusters. And, of course, mistakes and more mistakes as he grows and learns. Writing a book driven by a mistake threw my own into greater relief, and allowed me to find a way into Cross’s head. I believe the way he faces his challenges, both successfully and unsuccessfully, is authentic to the experiences we all share. It was a pleasure to write such a conflicted character and watch him find his way onto a path, even if it is not (yet) the path to perfection.

I wish you the smallest mistakes necessary to find the way to your own light, and strength in your continuous becoming.

—-

Trespassers: Amazon

Read a sample. Visit the author’s site.

The Big Idea: Susan Forest & Lucas K. Law

Susan Forest and Lucas K. Law tackle a topic in The Sum of Us that I wouldn’t have considered for an anthology of speculative stories. But the fault here is mine, not theirs, and in today’s Big Idea, the explain why their particular topic served as fertile ground for this collection.

SUSAN FOREST:

My father, Don Forest, was a remarkable man. He was the first person to climb all the peaks in the Canadian Rockies and Interior Ranges of BC over 11,000 feet (64 peaks), and at age 71, the oldest person to climb Canada’s highest mountain, Mount Logan. And, though he’d always treasured the outdoors, he didn’t take up mountaineering until he was in his early forties.

He taught my brother and sisters and I not only the nuts and bolts of outdoorsmanship, but the culture, the folklore, and the way of life of the mountain community. A highly respected “old mountain man,” he took no greater delight than to teach his children, and later his grandchildren, how to clean a fish, how to make a meal on a one-burner stove, how to repair a broken ski binding twenty miles from the highway. For him, his “Grizzly Group” of mountaineering comrades were his community. The glint of early morning sun on a high peak was his spirituality.

He gave it all up when, in her late seventies, my mother developed dementia.

Of course. An avocation can be a powerful passion, but your mate, your bonded life partner, is a piece of yourself. And she had stayed home many weekends, uncomplaining, caring for home, hearth and children as he went out to make his mark. They cared for each other.

I understand some of this. I love my work, my writing, my editing; but my children and my husband are part of me. Always, they come first. There is no question that the care we give one another is, personally to me and to most people, the highest priority, the highest calling, there is.

So, when Lucas approached me about working with him on The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound, an anthology about caregivers and caregiving, it was not only the timeliness of the subject in a western world of aging demographics, or his amazing line-up of potential authors, or the phenomenal experience I had working with him on Laksa Media’s first anthology, Strangers Among Us: Tales of the Underdogs and Outcasts, that prompted me to say, “Yes!”

It was an opportunity to read stories that captured the dimensions of love, sometimes unreturned; of desperation of a caregiver’s inability to conceive of a world without their partner; of the hard choices faced by those who, for whatever reason, choose not to take up this tough road. To explore the magnitude of human relationships implicit in an anthology centred on what it means…to care.

And I am so glad I did.

 

LUCAS K. LAW:

The Big Idea for The Sum of Us comes from the women in my life—the exemplary courage they have shown when they go through adversity and challenges. They are not famous or well-known. They are just ordinary folks who define the breadth and depth of giving and of caring for a young boy growing up in Malaysia, and later a man making his way in Canada.

The woman who influences me the most is my mother. She lost her mother when she was ten. At eleven, she had to leave home to live in a boarding school, as schooling was not available in her kampong. Two years later, she moved into a rented shack to take care of her three younger brothers (later, a fourth brother) who came for primary education. At fifteen, she left school to make a living. To be independent and be a caregiver at such a young age was amazing and heartbreaking. Imagine the piles of laundry she had to do for four boys—hand washing, line drying, ironing, folding—a constant and thankless chore.

I was six when another strong woman came to live with us. My paternal grandmother did not come willingly, but she could no longer take care of herself.  My pregnant mother took care of her, as well as a household of seven other people. Caregiving turned out to be 24/7. A year later, my grandmother died of cancer.

In the last ten years, mental illness has struck several of my relatives. And it was the women who held everyone together through their strong determination, resiliency, and commitment, even when they felt the sting of stigma and silence from their friends and strangers.

So I totally understand when Liz Westbrook-Trenholm dedicated her story in The Sum of Us: “To the women in my family: gentle or strong, never to be discounted.”

I have seen caregiving that comes from many places, directly or behind the scenes: parents, relatives, day-care workers, educators, volunteers, people in medical, police and fire services, and many more. Caregiving has cast a wider net than what is termed by traditionalists who see caregiving as strictly for the old, ill, or disabled. Caregiving consists of the words “care” and “giving.” Any action that compasses those qualities and makes a difference in someone’s life is deemed to be “caregiving.”

However, my Big Idea is worthless if the stories remain just stories, hidden away within the pages of The Sum of Us, and no one ever knows they exist—the messages they carry about caregiving being a noble profession, voluntary or involuntary, paid or free, short-term or long-term, are lost. It is up to us to find ways to tell and share these stories and our stories of the unsung heroes in our society—invisible in the background or relegated to a footnote, quietly making a difference to those whom each touches. The authors have done their jobs with their stories; let’s take a step further and get these stories into the hands of others.

Suggest or recommend The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound to your local public and school libraries. Help these stories of caregiving and caregivers live beyond these pages.

—-

The Sum of Us: Tales of the Bonded and Bound: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit Susan Forest’s site and follow her on Twitter. Visit Lucas K. Law’s site and follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente

And now, some of the most famous authors in the English language show a side that you probably never knew about — and Catherynne M. Valente uses that side to build up her latest novel, The Glass Town Game.

CATHERYNNE M. VALENTE:

So let’s say you’re a geeky kid, like any other geeky kid. School sucks, your siblings range from pretty okay to deeply annoying, everyone’s always telling you what to do and when to do it when all you really want to do is read your books and play with your action figures and maybe log on to your favorite multiplayer game.

Now, let’s say you’re a geeky kid who’s going to grow up to be one or two or three of the greatest geniuses of English literature, and you live in a Yorkshire village in 1828, and electricity is only a thing inasmuch as some American fooled around with a key and a kite awhile back. What’s a precocious, highly competitive pre-teen to do?

Welcome to Glass Town, perhaps the world’s first massively multiplayer offline text adventure. Meet the mods: Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell. You may know them better by their last name: Brontë.

You see, when the Brontës were kids, and not yet idols of literary fiction, they were exactly like nerdy kids are today, and invented a huge fantasy world together, complete with every worldbuilding cliche we know so well: every prince’s lineage was meticulously recorded, every horse had a backstory, every villain had an ancient grudge to twirl his mustache around, every city had a precise encyclopedia entry listing population, imports and exports, historical battles, and famous citizens. There was even a magic system worked out, invented and curated, naturally, on the monasterial Island of Philosophers. It may be strange to think of the writers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as your average Dungeons and Dragons playing adolescents, but they were exactly that—except they did it long before you ever heard of it. Long before it was cool.

The four of them, not only Charlotte and Emily, who you will have heard of, but Anne and Branwell, who you may not have, created the fantasy worlds of Glass Town, Gondal, and Angria, and peopled them with a cast of thousands. (Anne also wrote excellent books, but they are less blusteringly romantic and more iron-jawed feminist, and so do not get gushing film adaptations. Branwell, unfortunately, went down another, yet tragically traditional hipster route—he got fired from his job for sexual harassment and ended up having to move back home, where he became addicted to heroin and died quite young.) They wrote hundreds of stories in their private universe, full of a child’s understanding of British politics, Yorkshire fairy tales, Shakespearian plots, an obsession with Arctic and African exploration, and, growing up in the shadow of the Napoleonic Wars, battle after battle after battle. The main players in these sagas were a set of wooden soldiers their father bought Branwell for Christmas, which his sisters immediately claimed as communal property and used to act out their sagas, much as children today can play with their Skylanders aciton figures, then plug them into their consoles and watch them have adventures onscreen. But of course, the Brontës had no screens beyond pieces of paper. It hardly mattered. Geeks are geeks, and geekery is timeless.

Being the geniuses they were, however, these geeks took it a step further. Their fantasy world was downright postmodern. They invented in-world publishing houses and made two of the wooden soldiers into editors that printed magazines for the people of Glass Town, magazines that the Brontës completely laid out and wrote themselves under a number of different bylines, even going so far as to have inter-columnist rivalries. When 11-year-old Branwell invented an obvious Mary Sue by the name of Young Soult the Rhymer, the greatest poet of all time, 12-year-old Charlotte immediately began a brutal sniping campaign, writing scathing reviews of Young Soult’s work, calling it rubbish and analyzing it mercilessly line by line. They wrote histories of Angria, and then created other historians to contradict the “accepted” narrative.

And when Branwell, as young boys love to do, got tired of his poetry being trashed and turned to his favorite games, gleefully blowing up castles and forts and ships and camps, murdering every main character in a daily bloodbath worthy of George R. R. Martin, Emily and Anne invented an elixir of life to bring everyone back to play another day, virtually inventing the Continue screen long before Atari was a pixel in the mainframe’s eye.

In a small playroom in a Parsonage at the top of a hill in Yorkshire, four children created an utterly complete universe to rival any speculative fiction writer working today. You can’t even call it just fantasy—some of their characters go to space.

I was captivated by this, not by how cute it is that such fancy famous people made up stories about their dolls, but by how incredibly modern the Brontë children really were, when we think of them as these miserable Gothic maidens on the moor, never cracking a smile. We have so much of their Glass Town writings, still, today, available to read at the click of an Amazon button, and it truly is extraordinary work. I doubt any MFA program would turn down what Charlotte and Emily produced before the age of 13. You can see the beginnings of the writers they’re going to be, the characters they’re going to create, little baby Rochesters and Heathcliffs and Berthas and Janes. You can see them struggling against the women and men they knew they’d have to be when they grew up. You can see them trying on the adult world for size.

But I saw in them what I see in every kid I’ve ever met—the fierce loyalty and obsession to the games they play, online or offline, the imaginative hunger for other worlds. I wanted to make Glass Town a real place, that they really traveled to, and had adventures in, I wanted them to confront their creations, not least because the Brontës are so bloody post-post-modern that they actually did write about visiting their world and confronting their creations in 1828. Charlotte even wrote about dreaming that she herself and all her siblings were just characters in a novel someone else was writing.

I have loved the Brontës since I was a child, and when you love someone, you want to make their dreams come true.

But more than the Brontës dreams of visiting their fantastical universe, I wanted to make every child’s dream come true. Because there are moments, when you are young, and up in your room playing and thinking and imagining and wishing, when there is nothing in the world you want more than for the world inside your head to become the real world that you live in.

Hell, there are moments when you are old when you feel that way.

I didn’t want to write one of those novels where famous writers didn’t actually write their work, they just went to a magical place and recorded it. I know all to well that making worlds is hard work, and those plots always bothered me. I wanted to write a novel where somebody made a world so well, worked their toys so tirelessly, that it became real. And that’s what this book is.

The Glass Town Game is my gift to any kid who played so long and so hard that it felt more real than real life, to anyone who used to be that lonely, nerdy kid at the top of the stairs, making their action figures have epic adventures day after day that they could never hope to have. The history doesn’t matter. The famous name doesn’t matter—it’s never mentioned in the book. What matters is what every kid knows matters—the game, man.

So suit up, log on, and press start. Glass Town is about to get real.

—-

The Glass Town Game: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Ferrett Steinmetz

Nerds love the idea of the Singularity, but as Ferrett Steinmetz hypothesizes in The Uploaded, even in the Singularity, the rapture of the nerds is not evenly distributed.

FERRETT STEINMETZ:

Writers are evil people. You’re walking down the aisle of your wedding, lost in marital bliss, and your writer friend is thinking yes, yes, this is wonderful, but how could this all go wrong?

We don’t mean to ponder these awful outcomes.  We writers should be focusing on your joyous wedding vows, not imagining brutal Kill Bill-style interruptions or wondering what would cause someone to burst into the room to shout, “I do know why this man and this woman should not be legally married!”

But you know, nobody wants to read a story about things going right.

My unfortunate specialty is asking what goes wrong after the happily ever after – which is why my go-to example here is a wedding.  But in my book The Uploaded, I take the biggest happily ever after and absolutely destroy it.  I’m not talking about what gets wrecked after two people get married – I’m aiming at what happens five hundred years after all humanity unites in peace and harmony.

That’s right: The Uploaded is destroying the Singularity.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Singularity, it’s basically the nerdy Rapture.  At some point we’ll get enough computational power to upload our brains into the Internet, at which point we will have conquered death and everyone gets access to a digital Heaven that’s basically a supercharged World of Warcraft.

Do not get me wrong: in The Uploaded, this works.  This isn’t some crazy pay-for-play system where you shell out millions to avoid death and only the 1% get in.  The Upterlife’s creator, Walter Wickliffe, was fanatically devoted to ensuring that “all should pass through, but for the lowliest of criminals,” and he wound up becoming a politician to ensure no governments could spy on your archived consciousness.  He won a hairy Supreme Court case that ruled that archived citizens were actually human, and as such they can own property, they can be elected to office, and they can vote.

So that’s the perfect Singularity: you work, you obey the law, you get to live forever.  It’s that simple.

Except, of course, that it isn’t.

Because if you’re a student of history, you know that no paradise lasts forever.  Attitudes change.  People forget things.  And even though “forgetting things” is a little different when you have immortal politicians with memories that stretch back 500 years, well….

I’ll let Mama Alex, one of the characters from The Uploaded, explain it.

“Thing is, Amichai,” she continued, “people don’t change all that much. But the most virulent racists died off, and the new kids grew up with more black and Latino and Asian friends, and the world got a shade better. Not perfect – occasionally some freshfaced a-hole raised on yesterday’s thoughts would squirm into power for a time – but better.

“We never could have won if we had to face down all our enemies in their prime, Amichai. We just outlived ‘em.

“You’re right to call ‘em ghosts, Amichai. They haunt us. Every baby could be gene-engineered disease-free. Except the old-guard dead think genetic engineering’s a violation of nature, and they’re still around. And that opinion is not going away. Their old, bigoted culture gives new kids an excuse to be a-holes.

“You might hate death. But we’ve come to fetishize eternity – like hanging around forever is an unquestionable good. Death? It’s got its downsides, Amichai. But it sure clears away the underbrush.”

So society freezes because the old politicians never die.  But neither do their voters.  Within a few generations, the dead outnumber the living.  So nonviolent political change?  Gets increasingly unlikely.

Even worser: living culture changes.

Atheists often laugh at Christians, because there’s no Heaven and look at you restricting your life to live by imaginary rules when there’s no reward but the void.  But the problem with the Singularity is that suddenly, there is a Heaven – you can see it.  Hell, you get phone calls from your dead relatives squeeing about how great it is adventuring against the giant invasions on Wingbright Pass, leaving five-star reviews of the virtual mead.

You can’t have any of that until you die.

Being living becomes unfashionable.  Furthermore, living things become kinda creepy.  I mean, you can spend time crafting some nice woodworked chair in the real world – which you’ll leave behind when you die, and it will rot the whole time – or you can focus on creating virtual things.

The “real” world only becomes useful as a means of keeping the servers going.  And slowly, through a combination of culture and political incentives, the living become trained to hate themselves.  Your life’s too short to get the expertise that, say, architects and doctors with 200 years of experience have.

Your best career move is to die.

And yet that’s not the Big Idea here.

Because I don’t think it’s any surprise that The Uploaded features a protagonist who fricking loves the physical world, a culturally Jewish orphan named Amichai who’s tired of watching all his friends be told that their creativity isn’t worth looking at.  There’s going to be a dawning awareness of the secret government plan designed to cut down the living, and a big damn hero who becomes a symbol for the rebellion.

(It’s not Amichai.  It’s actually his pony.  This is a weird story.)

But that said, the Big Idea is not really “What happens 500 years after we conquer death?”, though that’s pretty big.  The Big Idea is what Amichai wrestles with throughout the course of the book:

That there are no happy endings.

There’s only work.

Because history is only work, my friends.  We thought we defeated the Nazis?  Well, the Internet provided an exciting new place to nurture hatreds.  We white folks got taught that Martin Luther King pretty much conquered racism in the 1960s?  Turns out we’ve still got a looooong way to go.  We elected Barack Obama?  Well, the backlash is Trump.

A large part of The Uploaded is about what happens when humanity gives into that urge to believe that the work is done.  Amichai becomes massively influential in the impending revolution, of course, but even though he’s smart enough to understand that the revolution is not the end point, he doesn’t know how to shape this movement so its momentum brings everyone to where they need to go.

The Uploaded is largely about that struggle.  Yes, Amichai wants to tear down the dead’s rule.  But to quote that King George line from Hamilton, You’re on your own.  Awesome, wow.  Do you have a clue what happens now?

Amichai doesn’t.  No one does.  And that’s the Big Idea:

Happy endings are an illusion.  There’s only maintenance of a fair society.  And anyone who checks out of that maintenance becomes a medium in which the most unaccountable horrors will flourish.

Anyway.  Terrible things happen.  There’s also ponies and a couple of cheap laughs.

Buy my book.

—-

The Uploaded: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Max Gladstone

Cities, sisters and war: Max Gladstone’s new novel The Ruin of Angels talks about each, together and apart. Here he is to explain how it all weaves together in his work.

MAX GLADSTONE:

Consider two sisters.

Kai and Ley live in different worlds, but sit at the same table. They grew up together, but they don’t see each other often these days. If you asked them, they’d give reasons—school and travel and work and things like that—but those reasons aren’t enough to name the distance. There was a death in the family when they were young, and they grew up in a hard home, in a country in trouble, and dealt with that in different ways. Kai dug into her home soil, dove into work, and built a life. Ley left, chasing a dream she could barely name, always just out of reach. She wanted to change the world, and she couldn’t do that at home.

They need each other more than anything. They’re all they have, in a dangerous time. But their different values have caused them to make different choices, and the conviction that they’ve made the right choices makes it almost impossible for them to understand each other’s needs.

One sees the girl who couldn’t leave, and the other sees the girl who couldn’t stay.

That’s the heart of Ruin of Angels, my new novel: the challenge of living in different worlds in the same space. What happens when it’s so difficult to understand the people we live beside—or the people we love—that we can’t help them? That we don’t even know how to help each other?

Cities are filled with different worlds, interlaced but not always intersecting, defined by values, history, choices, architecture. There are many Bostons, New Yorks, Nashvilles, some so sealed off from the rest their inhabitants never step into the worlds they live beside. Some people live all their lives in one of these sub-cities; others never have the freedom of that ignorance—they pay careful attention to which city they’re in at any given moment, because stepping wrong is the difference between life and death.

Class and culture and race shape these worlds, and they’re reinforced by the values residents hold, or are trained to hold. Is it a good or a suspicious thing to have a well-paying corporate job? Do you feel exhausted, or excited, on your fifth week of eighteen-hour grind? How important is it to live near your blood kin? Would you go to space if there were a good chance you’d never come back? When is violence the answer? (Are you sure? How does your experience of violence line up with the stories you tell about it, or about yourself?)

But crisis demands we break down those walls—or let them crush us.

Agdel Lex, where Ruin of Angels takes place, where Kai and Ley meet, is a fractured city. A hundred fifty years ago (or so), a great war started there—the God Wars, the near-omnicidal conflict between human sorcerers and the Gods whose powers they stole. The cataclysm frayed reality around Agdel Lex—and while every city holds many worlds, the worlds of Agdel Lex are a bit more literal than most.

The Iskari, Agdel Lex’s occupying power, have one vision for the city they seek to rule: an orderly metropolis, fit to a considered design, with everyone in their proper place. (Proper so far as the Iskari are concerned, anyway!) Like many governments, they think the many worlds should all be one. As the Iskari rule grows more complete, thanks to time and effort and new technologies, the families who ruled the city before the Iskari take shelter, and tell different stories, about a different city. Beneath these two cities gapes the inescapable fact (and world) of the War, a horror no one can quite bear to confront, but no one can forget. Torn between two poles, we find immigrants and wanderers trying to build their own future.

The system has worked—not really—for a while.

But a crisis is coming. It doesn’t start with Kai and Ley—their fight’s just the point when it turns visible. When the crisis strikes, Kai, and Ley, and their friends and enemies and lovers and students and partners, face dangers they can’t resolve alone. They’ll have to take down the walls that part them—walls formed by history, by pride, by self-absorption and pigheadedness and trauma. They’ll have to trust and reach out—and maybe even that won’t be enough.

W.H. Auden said it best, but he said it twice, and I’m not sure which version’s right:

We must love one another, or die.

Or:

We must love one another, and die.

That’s the big idea in Ruin of Angels. It’s the big idea in a lot of my life right now. The times are changing. We have to love, and work like hell, to build a better world. And no one can do it alone.

So, good thing we’re not alone.

—-

The Ruin of Angels: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|iBooks|Kobo

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Michael J. Martinez

Politics! It happens in Michael J. Martinez’s new book MJ-12: Shadows! For good reason! Prepare yourself!

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ:

“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success.” – Samuel Smiles, 19th century Scottish author and government reformer

Oh, Sam. If only.

It’s certainly easier for an individual to learn from their mistakes than, say, an entire country. Just open another browser window (after reading this) and the examples will come pouring in. Our nation is one built upon astounding successes and inhumane mistakes, and I think it’s in our character – as Americans, as human beings – to double down on success and ignore the mistakes.

But it’s our responsibility to learn from our mistakes, and that’s a very Big Idea in the MAJESTIC-12 series, the latest of which, MJ-12: Shadows, came out this week. Both as individuals and as a nation, that responsibility takes center stage.

Yeah, this gets political. Fair warning.

The MAJESTIC-12 series tells the story of American covert activity during the early Cold War from the perspective of uniquely talented yet otherwise everyday Americans – individuals thrust into the center of international espionage after randomly exhibiting disturbing preternatural abilities.

Basically, spies with superpowers against the Soviets. I mean, we can have fun with the weighty ideas, right?

I do a goodly amount of research for my historical fantasies, and the track record of the CIA throughout the Cold War is chock full of assassinations, back alley bargains, briefcases full of money and literal dirty tricks. Some of the operations that have been declassified make Argo look perfectly reasonable and sane.

Take Syria in 1949, the time and place I explore in MJ-12: Shadows. At the beginning of the year, the nation had a democratically elected government and was beginning to assert itself after centuries of Ottoman rule and decades of European colonialism afterward.

But that government was not particularly inclined toward American interests – which primarily involved denying the U.S.S.R. a Mediterranean port and getting the Trans-Arabian Pipeline built through Syria. So the CIA launched an operation to replace Syria’s democratically elected government with a military strongman.

It worked, and one of said strongman’s first acts was to approve the oil pipeline. By summer, the strongman was replaced by a military colleague – who was subsequently overthrown by year’s end. Three coups in a year…and the wheel goes on and on today.

What would the Middle East look like today if the U.S. had supported democracy in Syria instead of working to overthrow it? Has the United States learned from these mistakes in Syria? Iran? Cuba? Vietnam? Nicaragua? Afghanistan? Iraq? Have we achieved some semblance of wisdom from our failures? Have we understood our responsibilities as a nation?

I didn’t conceive of this series in our current era of God-what-now politics. I didn’t choose Syria because of what’s going on there today. Heck, I’m writing the third book of the series now, and that one is partially set in Korea. It’s scary. But I want to do all of this justice. And that means doing the research and telling a really good story – ideally, one that gets people thinking.

By placing everyday people at the center of these world-shaping events – a schoolteacher, a factory worker, an electrician, a WWII veteran – I’m able to walk a mile in some fictional shoes and explore what it means to be part of it all. These characters can, and do, question why they’re there and what they’re doing, all on behalf of a government that strong-armed them to sign up in the first place because of their abilities. They have their own responsibilities and their own mistakes to make.

Yes, they have superpowers. And there’s gadgets and chases and narrow escapes. I like me a good spy thriller, after all. But in the end, the real-world history is letting me tell a story about responsibility – of nations, of individuals blessed with unique gifts – and maybe explore some of the failures we’ve made, individually and collectively.

MJ-12: Shadows: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Books-A-Million | Mysterious Galaxy

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

The Big Idea: Katherine Locke

Magic is made-up — but sometimes, Katherine Locke argues, it helps to look at the real world through the lens of the imaginary. She’s here to explain why, and how it affects her novel The Girl With the Red Balloon.

KATHERINE LOCKE:

I’ve been thinking about Luna Lovegood’s glasses lately. I’d forgotten (forgive me, Potterheads) that they were called Spectrespecs, but I had remembered they were given out through the Quibbler and that Luna believed–and maybe they did–they let her see things that other people didn’t see. The Quibbler was seen as a joke paper, but by book six, they were printing the truth–alongside some more questionable allegations about the world–while the Daily Prophet called Harry a liar and refused to see what was in front of it.

This isn’t a post about Harry Potter, really.

This is a post about how sometimes, seeing reality through the fantastic is the most truthful way to view it. Sometimes, we need to look at our lives, and the lives that came before us, through Spectrespecs, as to better understand what’s happening. To push away denial. To contextualize information.

And that’s not just for reading. That’s for writing too.

I knew I wanted to write a book that dealt with the guilt of being a granddaughter who traveled and fell in love with a place that had treated my ancestors so cruelly that my grandfather was upset with me for traveling there. For me, it was Ukraine. For Ellie, it’s Germany. And I knew I wanted to explore the way that facets of history interlocked and interacted with each other–the way that East Germany, and the surveillance state and limitations on its people, were born out of World War II, which was born out of invasions and genocide. The way that affects three different teenagers at different times in their life.

But I couldn’t look straight at it. And nor did I want to tell it entirely through the fantastical–that is, a secondary world fantasy with a history that stood in for ours. I wanted it to be recognizable, but accessible. The Holocaust and East Germany are two big subjects that aren’t easy to digest, especially in 250 pages.

So The Girl with the Red Balloon is written through Spectrespecs.

Sure, there are magical red balloons, but where possible, I didn’t alter from the historical record. In the 1988 timeline in my book, they use magical red balloons to help people escape from East to West Berlin. But I didn’t erase the other ways people escaped: by hot air balloons, tunnels, hiding in cars, false papers. And honestly, when I think about what people had to do to escape, magical red balloons seem just as possible as hand-digging a tunnel all the way beneath the death zone and the Wall to West Berlin.

I used magic, throughout the book, to illuminate real historical events instead of using magic to create new one. Magic is a lens through which we can grasp the extraordinary, and the miraculous, power of hope and faith and the human spirit. Magic lets me show that it isn’t the escape using a magical balloon that teaches us something, but who is left behind. Magic lets me show that for all that we can control and manipulate and plan, inexplicable things happen. Nothing is perfect. Time and friendships and people are fragile, and must all be treated with empathy and compassion.

Magic isn’t a thing that happens in my book, but a way for us to see what really did happen.

This isn’t something new. A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, A Wind in the Door, and Bridge to Terabithia are all books from my childhood that used the fantastic to show us real moments that exist in all of our lives. In A Wrinkle in Time, I remember so clearly the boy bouncing the ball out of sync with the rest of the kids bouncing their balls. I remember the door being slammed shut. That wasn’t magical. But the fantastic had given me a window into seeing a world where children’s differences, varying abilities, strengths and weaknesses were seeing as unnatural and a liability, instead of celebrated. In Bridge to Terabithia, the fantastic literally gave Jesse a place on the page where he was powerful, where his family’s dysfunction and poverty did not limit the person he could become. The fantastic is a lens, on and off the page, in each of these books.

It’s a powerful way of exploring history. And yes, people will struggle to label your book. The Girl with the Red Balloon is called a mystery, or historical urban fantasy, or a historical mystery, or historical fantasy, or mystery set in history with magical realism, and all sorts of things. But the choice here was deliberate, even if it made for a tough submission process: magic doesn’t just have to be a thing characters do. It can be a way for a reader to access your world, even if it’s not historical. Even if it’s contemporary, or secondary world fantasy. Magic should be a lens, not just a tool.

As Madeleine L’Engle said in her acceptance speech for the Margaret Edwards Award, “Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth.”

So look clearly.

—-

The Girl With the Red Balloon: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Alan Gratz

The real question to my mind is whether Alan Gratz’s new novel Ban This Book is itself ever banned. It’s possible! And would be recursive! And as Gratz explains below, it would mean his book would join a rather august list of books that have been banned.

ALAN GRATZ:

A few years back, someone posted the following question to Yahoo Answers: “Is it OK to run an illegal library from my locker at school?” The author of the question then explained that she went to a private Catholic school where the principal had released a long list of books the students weren’t allowed to read. To be a rebel, the girl brought one of the banned books to school, and soon her friends were clamoring to read it. She added more and more banned books to the collection in her locker, and began running it like a proper library. “But is what I’m doing wrong because parents and teachers don’t know about it and might not like it,” she asks at the end, “or is it a good thing because I’m starting appreciation of the classics and truly good novels in my generation?”

Cue the Internet swoon-fest.

The link was shared everywhere. It was Tweeted and Facebooked and reposted. The story was picked up by Library Journal, and Goodreads, and Reddit. The girl and her banned book locker library were written about on educational review sites and librarian listservs and school blogs. Cory Doctorow even posted the forwarded story on BoingBoing, adding, “Give that kid a medal and a full-ride scholarship to the best library school in the country, please!” The post itself got more than a hundred responses (most of them offering earnest advice and plaudits,) and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. And the author of the post kept updating it with more lists of books that had been banned and added to her library.

But…wait for it…

It was a hoax.

What? Not everything you read on the Internet is true? Gasp and clutch the pearls!

Pretty quickly those skeptical fun killers among us proved the whole thing to be made up. But because nobody ever reads the comments, and because nothing ever dies on the Internet, the story keeps getting found, and shared, and linked to. I’m still surprised when I see it pop up in one of my feeds. Maybe you’ve seen it yourself. Just within the last year, a writer I admire retweeted the link with heaps of praise for the student. Like a lot of other people, I loved this story, and probably like a lot of those same people, I was bummed (but not entirely surprised) when I learned it was bogus.

But unlike everybody else, I stole the idea and wrote a book about it.

To write a book about book banning though, I was going to have to learn a lot more about, well, banning books. Not being in favor of banning books, I’d never tried to do it myself, and I’d never taught at a school or been at a school as a student or parent when a challenge happened. And none of the books I’ve written has ever been banned. At least, not that I know of. That’s one thing I learned as I began my research—that many book challenges and removals are never reported or contested. Very quietly, a book just disappears from the shelf.

I also wanted to know what kind of books got challenged and banned. I knew the famous ones—books like Huckleberry Finn (first banned in 1885, the year after it was published, for being “absolutely immoral” and using “bad grammar and inelegant expressions,” to more recent challenges over the N-word), and the Harry Potter series (witchcraft!). But what else got challenged, and why? For answers, I turned to the American Library Association, who are all over this like evolution disclaimers on Alabama textbooks. Each year, the ALA investigates every public challenge in America, and every few years they publish a book listing every challenge ever recorded. It’s a big book.

The challenged books are as varied as the reasons for challenging them are ridiculous. Among children’s books, The Stupids Step Out was challenged for encouraging children to disobey their parents. In My Teacher is an Alien, challengers took issue with the main character handling problems on her own instead of relying on the help of others. Harriet the Spy supposedly taught children to “lie, spy, back-talk, and curse.” Ewoks Join the Fight was challenged because (spoiler alert!) the Death Star is destroyed. And my favorite: The Lorax “criminalizes the foresting industry.” These were all real challenges.

So rather than make up fake books to challenge in my story, I used real books. Every novel challenged by parents in Ban This Book is one that has been challenged somewhere in America at least once in the last thirty years. The rest of my story—well, that’s all made up. I had to change a few things from the original Yahoo Answers post, of course. My main character would also be a girl, but she would be a lot younger—a fourth grader. And instead of going to a Catholic school where, let’s face it, they can tell you what you can and can’t read because it’s a private school and if you don’t like it you can just stop paying them money and go somewhere else, I would set mine at a public elementary school in North Carolina, where I live. (And where, I’m ashamed to say, we’ve seen our fair share of book challenges and book controversies.) And instead of young adult novels, it would be all middle grade novels that were banned, and Dav Pilkey, author of the awesome and oft-challenged Captain Underpants books would make a cameo, and the finale would involve a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style school board showdown, and…

Well, I changed pretty much everything except the part about hiding banned books in a locker and checking them out in secret to other kids.

After all, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

—- 

Ban This Book: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Jaym Gates

California has always been pegged as the “weird” state — and as a native of the state, I just have to say… well, yeah. But in Strange California, the story anthology she’s co-edited with J. Daniel Batt, editor Jaym Gates goes beyond a simple agreement on the strangeness of the state, to dig into what makes the Golden State so weird and wonderful.

JAYM GATES:

I think I first came up with the idea for Strange California long before I realized it. I had a habit, when I lived in the state, of taking long drives, losing myself on backroads choked with fog, warded by towering oaks or sequoia. One day, on my birthday, I was driving up Highway 1, along the coast from Santa Cruz to Pescadero. It was a sunny day, but a wall of fog was rolling in from the sea. Highway 1 is all steep cliffs and blind corners, and as I drove around one such corner, I found myself surrounded by a lemon-yellow fog.

There’s no way to describe that color or feeling in words. It was like being swallowed by the sun, glowing and liquid in a way I’ve never seen before. I wanted to stop and bask, but I passed around another corner and was again in the grey and blue and gold of early-winter California, wondering if I had dreamed the whole thing, and suddenly I was laughing, the fear and stress of months of personal horror washed away by a strange trick of the light.

It was moments like these that inspired the title of this anthology, and the spirit of it. The roads of California are entities themselves, mythologized in their own right, and they play their own part in telling the stories here.

Take a journey up Highway 99. Stop off just north of Bakersfield where a young woman stands on the edge of Woollomes Avenue, looking apprehensive, debating if she should cross. She’s been dead for decades but the residents see her often enough that she’s become a stable fixture of the scenery, as normal as the billboards that line the Highway.

Follow that highway further and you’ll encounter another roadside obscurity. John Muir’s conservationist efforts have inspired people across the world. Commemorating him via celebration wasn’t enough for the small town of Lemon Cove. To honor the champion of the wilderness, some Californians have constructed a massive wooden sculpture of his head that sits just the road, staring to the horizon, to the vastness of Yosemite.

Time for one more stop on your trek up 99? How about visiting the underground city below Old Sacramento buried when the town decided to simply raise the roads and start fresh. The storefronts still stand and some swear that the dead have migrated to roam the alleyways of a town that’s been forgotten by the tourists walking above.

You have a choice, from here. On up 99, to the brutally-sharp rubble and claustrophobic caves of the Lava Beds National Monument, to the silent, deserted ghost towns and high-mountain deserts of Modoc, the extinct volcanoes and wildlands around Lassen. Head back around to 80, through the Donner Pass–be sure to go in winter, and take some friends with you.

Or you can leave 99 and take 50. 50, the notorious mountain highway. Blocked in winter by snow, in spring by mudslides, in summer and autumn by wildfires. Stop off in Placerville, where an effigy still hangs over Main Street in commemoration of its heritage as Old Hangtown, and ghosts are reported in nearly every old building and mine. Follow 50 through the steep climb to Tahoe, the legendary inland sea, or venture off to its tributaries 395 and 49. 395, passing through military training grounds, ski resorts, cattle towns, and back down into the deadly beauty of Death Valley and Yosemite. 49, the Golden Chain highway, snaking through towns once infamous for their gold and hangings, through the country that inspired Mark Twain and Clark Ashton Smith.

And we haven’t even touched on Southern California, or the intense rivalries between North and South. With an economy rivaling that of many world nations, it is a world unto itself, full of mystery and legend from a hundred cultures and alternate histories. It leaves an indelible mark on everyone who passes through it.

But these are strange places we know of. California sprawls across a multitude of landscapes and has amassed a history full of the strange and unusual. There are secrets in the desert. Secrets in the cities. Strange and unusual happenings in the odd, dark places of the coastal state.

I’ve wanted to do a project like this for a long time. My family was in the state before it was a state, and the family stories would fill many a night of storytelling. While that history influenced my own storytelling quite a bit, I wanted to hear other stories, too.

So J. Daniel Batt and I talked to some people, opened a slush pile, and built an anthology. We ran it off of Kickstarter (and discovered just how much Facebook throttles links now!), and barely funded. In true California fashion, we met our goal in the 11th hour…thanks to a mysterious venture capitalist. It was the perfect laugh, a thing where you shrug and remember that weirdness doesn’t stay in the soil of a place.

California is an entity, a genius loci of power and mystery. It inspires envy, lust, greed, love, fear, and so much more. Its wide borders encompass a microcosm of the nation, from abject poverty to unimaginable wealth, the old ways and the new packed shoulder-to-shoulder, simmering with potential for greatness, or for disaster.

California Strange tells a few stories inspired by that legendary place.

—-

California Strange: Amazon|Direct digital and print

Read an excerpt. Visit the book site. Follow Jaym Gates on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Anna Smith Spark

The world we live in is not always peaceful… and maybe sometimes we kind of like it that way, whether we like to admit that or not. Author Anna Smith Spark has thoughts on the act of violence, and how it animates the story of her novel The Broken Knives.

ANNA SMITH SPARK:

The Court of Broken Knives is a novel about violence.

When I started writing the book, I didn’t have a plot or a world or a cast of characters in mind. What I had was a scene.

A desert.

A group of men.

Violence.

I’ve always been fascinated by violence: How one might respond to the opportunity for violence. What doing violence might feel like.  And that’s what The Court of Broken Knives ultimately became about.

I was brought up reading the great myths and legends, the old stories of heroes. The Iliad. The Eddas. Beowulf. Gilgamesh. The Tain. I loved these stories. Read and reread them, immersed myself in them, told myself stories set in their worlds. But what I came back to, as I got older, was the realisation that for so many of these stories we are not reading about good versus evil. We are not reading high fantasy, the last desperate stand where evil is vanquished and the Dark Lord is overthrown. We are reading about violence for its own sake. The act of winning, of killing one’s opponent and glorying in one’s triumph, is the victory. The hero is ‘good’ because he wins.

And yes, ‘he’. These are acts of masculine violence. More women have perhaps fought in battle than we realise, yes, granted. But, historically, organised violence has been the domain of men. Armies and battle hosts have been male places. Places from which women have been excluded. And that in itself is worth thinking on.

Let’s look for a moment on the Iliad. The Iliad was written down over two and a half thousand years ago. It was composed perhaps three thousand years ago. It is the first and greatest masterpiece of European literature, the foundation stone of western culture. It is a book entirely and totally about war. A very large number of people die in the Iliad. Graphically, horribly, and without even the consolation of heaven awaiting them. The whole reason for the war is shown to be futile.

But war is also the whole basis of the Iliad’s society. The leader of the Trojans is called Hector. He’s spent ten years killing Greeks for the sake of a woman who ran off with his little brother. He’s seen most of his brothers die, and his wife’s entire family die, and he knows, deep down inside, that he’s going to die himself. In one of the most moving scenes in the poem, he says farewell to his wife and child before going out to battle, and he knows and we know and they know that he’s not going to come back from it. And this is what he says:

When [their child is grown and] comes home from battle wearing the bloody gear

Of the mortal enemy he has killed in war-

A joy to his mother’s heart.

(Homer, Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, Penguin, 1990, book 6, lines 568-574)

Coming home from battle still bloody with his enemies’ innards. That’s the greatest joy a woman can want for her children. That’s what makes you absolutely the top chap.

The Iliad is not a celebration of war. But is not a rejection of war, either. It makes one terrible, horrifying, entirely obvious point:

Winning at war feels great. And that’s a strange and exhilarating experience to write about—particularly someone who has not ever fought.

Reading about war is enjoyable. Writing about war is immensely enjoyable. And I strongly suspect, from everything I’ve ever studied about history, that actually doing war is even more enjoyable than reading or writing or watching it. Warfare has been pretty much a constant of human history, and those who are good at it have generally occupied the top social and sexual desirability spot. Some war is morally justified.  Most war is not. We’ve always known that. Right back to the Iliad. And yet we do it. We have always done it. We probably always will.

We do it because winning at war feels great. I wanted my characters to have the same feelings as Hector: to understand simultaneously that war is bloody and horrible, but also glorious and exciting and fun.

I do not say this because I think war is a good thing. It is a terrible thing. A horrifying thing. A thing of utter shame and grief.

But I say it because it is a true thing, and a thing that I wanted people to remember in The Court of Broken Knives.

—-

The Broken Knives: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Stella Parks

I’ve eaten Stella Parks‘ desserts, and, oh, man, they are so good. So I’m delighted to give her space today to let her tell you about her debut cookbook BraveTart, which examines and celebrates a branch of America’s culinary tradition Parks thinks is overlooked and underappreciated. Is she right? Read on.

STELLA PARKS:

When people hear that I’m a classically trained pastry chef or that I work at a place called Serious Eats, most everyone will ask how I got my start. I can’t help but imagine they want to hear about a magical summer in France or else how I learned to bake at my mother’s side. Maybe they want me to say that I always loved Julia Child, or that I saved up my allowance to buy my first croissant. Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way at all.

I grew up in suburban Kentucky, my summers spent with Puddin’ Pops on the porch, my winters passed one mug of Swiss Miss at a time. I loved the tongue-scorching sweetness of a McDonald’s apple pie from the drive-thru window and the muffled scrape of a plastic spoon against the bottom of a chocolate pudding cup (the tinfoil lid curled back and licked clean, natch). At the supermarket, I learned the heft to a tube of cookie dough, the lightness in a bag of marshmallows, and the rattle of rainbow sprinkles in a plastic jar. That’s how I got my start—somewhere between the milk-logged squish of an Oreo and the snap of a Crunch bar.

Sure, it sounds a little trashy compared to that whole Proust thing with madeleines and tea, but I find those bites are just as transportive, little triggers that send me flying back through time. Chances are, if you grew up in America, you’ve got some memories like that as well. Maybe it’s the a dollop of Cool Whip on pumpkin pie, the sticky fingered bliss of an ice cream sandwich, or that familiar slab of birthday cake on the conference room table. Those shared experiences, however mundane, connect us across most every demographic.

It’s a common phenomenon, but a culinary tradition we pay little respect—we call it junk food. Truth is, mass produced snacks have a lineage as respectable as any other. Animal crackers, vanilla wafers, and Fig Newtons all date back to the 1800s, and even newcomers like Rice Krispies Treats, Reese’s Cups, and Milky Way bars are nearly a hundred years old. For anyone raised in America and alive today, these sweets have always been a familiar part of life. Yet they’re not really ours; industrial formulas are subject to change or even cancellation outright (RIP, Coke Zero; adios, Magic Middles).

So when I set out to write a cookbook about American desserts, I knew I couldn’t leave the “junk food” behind. It had damn well earned a place at the table—right alongside “proper” American desserts like devil’s food cake, chocolate chip cookies, and apple pie. With that mandate in mind, I spent nearly six years writing, researching, and developing recipes for everything from Snickers to snickerdoodles. In the end, I don’t think of it as a cookbook so much as a culinary time capsule, stuffed full of recipes, vintage images, history, and photography to tell the story of American desserts as a whole.

—-

BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author on Serious Eats, Twitter, and Instagram, or on tour.

The Big Idea: Beth Cato

There’s the saying that “those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but in order to learn your history, sometimes you have to dig deeper — much deeper — than what is commonly known. This is a fact that has relevance for author Beth Cato and her latest novel Call of Fire.

BETH CATO:

I love that historical fiction can be entertaining and educational at the same time. When I began to research prior to writing Breath of Earth, the first novel in this series, I was genuinely excited to delve deeper into turn-of-the-20th-century California history. My books feature a 1906 America that is allied with Japan to form the Unified Pacific, a world power in the midst of conquering China as part of its goal to dominate mainland Asian. I bought a number of books on Chinese immigration and experiences in America in that era.

As my research continued for my second book, the newly-released Call of Fire, I found that I dreaded reading more on the subject. I’ve been a history geek since I was a kid and I went into this with the knowledge that Chinese immigrants had been treated poorly, but I had no real comprehension of the horrific abuses they endured.

This wasn’t just about far-off California history anymore, either. This was about my hometown, the place I was born.

Like many other San Joaquin Valley cities, my hometown of Hanford was founded by the railroad in the late 19th century. Chinese men did much of the hard labor to lay the tracks and blast their way through mountains to connect the state with the larger continent. Centrally-located Hanford had one of the largest Chinese communities in the valley. These days, the city is proud of what remains of its China Alley. There’s a lovely tea room there, as well as a preserved Taoist Temple with a gift shop. The Moon Festival each October is a big draw.

When I was a kid, though, I was puzzled that Hanford still had its China Alley but other nearby cities–even larger ones like Visalia and Fresno–did not. My mom told me something like, “They were probably torn down over the years.” That made sense to me. Hanford’s China Alley has some decrepit buildings, too, and it’s only been in recent years that other parts have been lovingly restored to become a year-round attractions.

During my research, though, I finally found the real answer to my childhood question. The other Chinatowns weren’t simply torn down. In the 1880s and 1890s, they were firebombed and the surviving Chinese were run out of town. There were even race riots in vineyards near Fresno.

Hanford still managed to retain some of its Chinese population, but that didn’t mean all was well during that period. I found mention of an editorial from my hometown paper in 1893 that admonished young white women of the county to improve their kitchen skills so that they would not hire Chinese cooks.

I called up my mom. “Did you know about all of this?” She did not. I called up my grandma. Same answer.

That’s when I became angry.

What the Chinese had endured had been erased from local history. Men were murdered. Families terrorized. Livelihoods destroyed. Then the butchery and abuses they endured were forgotten.

When I write about these kinds of racist incidents in my books, I imagine many readers will think that the stuff is pure fiction, all part of the elevated drama of my alternate history. That’s exactly why I include an author’s note in each book along with an extensive bibliography (which I also have on my website at BethCato.com). I want readers to know about the ‘Dog Tag Law’ that required Chinese immigrants to carry an identity card, America’s first internal passport, starting in 1892. I want them to know what happened in Tacoma, Washington, and Honolulu, Hawaii.

I hope people enjoy my books Breath of Earth and Call of Fire, but I also want readers to learn, as I have, that our beloved hometowns may possess dark secrets that need to see the light. We can’t undo the crimes of the past, but we can learn. We can remember.

—-

Call of Fire: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Kathe Koja

It is sometimes said that someone is a person of their time — which may make you wonder what might happen to that person in different times, and what those times would do that person. Kathe Koja might, anyway, and it’s one of the reasons her novel Christopher Wild exists.

KATHE KOJA:

Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.

He’s a London guy, but he’s been around the block, he knows a lot of people and a lot of people know him. They say he’s a scholar and a poet, they say he’s a spy, they say he likes guys; he says he likes guys, and likes smoking, and thinks religion is all about control, not love, among other free-thinking opinions. Some people—most famously a dude named Dick who ratted him out to the authorities—suggested that the “mouth of so dangerous a [man] should be stopped.” And the authorities agreed, and had him killed.

But he was, he is, a writer. And so his work kept on speaking in tandem with that brief, steep, outrageous life—as I write this, this guy, this Christopher Marlowe, this Kit, is studied in universities around the world, his plays of turbulent men with violent ideas are produced and debated and relished, and he’s stealing the show in a show called Will.  

There are more than a few Marlowe biographies and novels: you may have met him there. Anthony Burgess’ gorgeously written A Dead Man in Deptford was my own introduction to Kit, and the life pointed to the work—I’d heard of Faustus, that soul-selling literal daredevil, but the other plays (like Edward II and Tamburlaine) were ravishingly new to me. And the poems, sexy, erudite, unforgettable poems . . . I thought, who is this guy! I thought, oh god this guy. I thought, I have to write about him too.

And so my newest novel, Christopher Wild.

But befitting its subject who loved to challenge, this book was such a challenge that I was bewildered how to even begin. I don’t write about real people, I write fiction that works to make characters seem real. And no one is ever going to write a better, more beautiful bio novel than Burgess. So how could I reincarnate this man?—whose voice I was crazy in love with, and whose life has resonance not only with his own time but every era where power seeks to throttle truth, and fear sits side by side with stifling caution; which is to say, every era . . . And most of all, first and last of all, he’s a writer, a gloriously original and badass writer, how could I do him full justice on the page? All I had was doubt, and a giant pile of notes and research reading.

But I wanted to hang out with Marlowe.

So I took the leap, I plunged: I planned the structure of the novel then threw that structure totally away, I found a new way, I found that the way to show his contemporaneity was to place him in places where silence shouted loudest, where danger was deepest for a man who can’t keep his mouth shut, ever: places like his own grimly glamorous Elizabethan world, then a tense and humid McCarthyesque mid-20th century, then a darkening future just slightly past our own horizon, where punishing surveillance is the 24/7 norm.

The voice that flowered in those ages, and my pages, was a confident one, a fierce and passionate one, one that I followed every bit as much as I led: I knew him better then, I learned as we went on. Is it the book I expected I’d be writing? Not at all. But that’s what it’s like when you hang with a bold new friend, he takes you places you didn’t imagine you’d go.

Which is why I opened up the process to early supporters, who received a monthly email with research notes and cool or silly factoids (Kit Harington plays Faustus! Sniff a Marlowe perfume!), along with excerpts from the novel in progress—another thing I’d never done before, or contemplated doing.

And then all the writing was done, and Marlowe was ready, again, for his close-up, he was climbing into a big-finned yellow Buick, he was heading up the crusty subway stairs, he was striding down a slick and cobbled alley where life and death murmur together, telling eternity’s everyday secrets; he was here again, with us again, because he’s never left . . . If you’ve met him already, lucky you (and why the hell didn’t you tell me sooner?). But if you haven’t, oh then please grab a seat, get a drink, let me introduce you and we can all go wild.

—-

Christopher Wild: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Roadswell Editions

Visit the author’s blog. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson

Think the idea of robots is a relatively new one? It doesn’t have to be, and in The Clockwork Dynasty, author Daniel H. Wilson gives some thought to the idea of what it would be like if the idea were something other than on the cutting edge of modern civilization.

DANIEL H. WILSON:

In 1928, a box of old junk arrived at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute. Really old. Rumored to be the remains of an incredible device, the loose pieces of brass machinery were unassembled, many of them twisted and singed by fire. A decade passed before an engineer could piece together the device into its true form—a little boy at a desk, holding a quill pen poised in his fingers.

Wound up and set loose, the primitive robot began to draw elaborate sketches and poems. And at the end of the final poem, written in French, it signed off with a flourish: “Written by the automaton of Maillardet.” Just like that, after over a century, the device revealed its provenance in a surprisingly simple manner—by writing it down on a piece of paper.

I remember being inspired by the story of Maillardet’s draughtsman; it left me thinking that although we live in a modern civilization, our ancestors had their triumphs, too.

And so, as these things go, a scene began to creep into my mind. I imagined walking, talking automatons, sent like messages from our ancestors in the distant past, created before written history and wandering here to our present through the long dark ages of humankind. Thus began the adventure of June Stefanov, a young anthropologist specializing in the study of court automatons—starting with the moment she discovers a hidden message in the writings of a revived automaton much like Maillardet’s:

“All who breathe do not live; all who touch do not feel; and all who see do not judge. Behold the avtomat.”

The Clockwork Dynasty imagines the avtomat (a Russian word that means “machine”), a race of humanlike machines built in prehistory by a fallen civilization. Concealing themselves among humanity for centuries, they have quietly served the great empires of antiquity and steered nations around the globe toward our familiar technological future. In the present day, they are running out of power and praying that civilization will soon be advanced enough to understand and repair their inscrutably complex bodies.

The central paradox is of course that our “primitive” ancestors reached technological heights we’ve never seen. The fruit of their labor still walks among us, each avtomat symbolic of some virtue prized by our lost forbearers. Though these robots are superior to humans, they are built in our image and carry our principles. And they are depending on us to save them from oblivion.

So, what the heck was I thinking? Normally, I write about shiny, new robots. These creatures (at least initially) are made of ceramic and brass; wood, leather and whalebone. Their story isn’t set “five years in the future”—it begins in an age passed out of all memory, a time of legends and myth.

In this way, The Clockwork Dynasty has something in common with some of my favorite fantasy and sci-fi worlds. In places like Star Wars, The Hobbit, and Dune, the older a technology is, the more powerful it is.

It’s an idea I find refreshing. Maybe it’s just fatigue. I’m the robot guy, you know? My flap cover story is that I earned a PhD in robotics and now I write (relentlessly) about the cutting edge of technology. Want to know what’s coming next? Ask the robot guy!

Not this time. There is hubris in assuming that our civilization is the latest and the greatest. It’s an assumption The Clockwork Dynasty does not make.

Homo sapiens has been roaming this planet for over a hundred thousand years. We’ve got just five thousand years of written history. A lot of smart people have been born and died in our uncharted past. Who knows what marvels they produced?

Another refreshing tidbit—I’m not destroying the world this time.

In novels like Robopocalypse and Amped, I’ve relished watching technology tear society (and let’s face it, people) apart. But the robots in The Clockwork Dynasty are pushing humanity toward a high-tech future. It’s a reverse apocalypse, and a theme much more in line with how I feel about robots and technology.

Looking back on it, I feel this novel is testament to the symbolic power of the robot in storytelling. We humans are obsessed with ourselves and our place in the universe. Our robotic creations hold up a distorted mirror to humanity, challenge our primacy and uniqueness, and force us to rethink our most basic assumptions.

And what amazes me most is that robots and automatons have been challenging us this way for millennia, and they will continue to do so for years to come…

Right up until the Robopocalypse. ;)

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The Clockwork Dynasty: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “read an excerpt” button on the linked page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Adam Christopher

Congratulations! Your book was a success! Now do that trick a second time! In discussing Killing is My Business, author Adam Christopher talks about doing the thing that you did so well all over again — but different this time.

ADAM CHRISTOPHER:

You know how it goes, the difficult second album: a band spends years meticulously crafting a collection of songs, polishing them through endless live sets until they shine, and these songs form their incandescent debut album.

Then they need to produce the follow-up and essentially come up with an entirely new repertoire on demand. That second album can be a difficult one indeed.

Now, I didn’t spend years crafting the Ray Electromatic Mysteries – Made to Kill, the first full-length novel after the Tor.com novelette Brisk Money, came out in 2015 and was something like my seventh published novel – but somehow the series has a certain kind of weight, just like that debut album of your favourite band. I think it’s because that original big idea was very big indeed – I was writing Raymond Chandler’s lost science fiction epics, a series about a robot assassin working in Chandler’s near-future Hollywood of 1965. That idea sprang from Chandler’s own letter to his agent in 1953, in which he complained about sci-fi, saying “people pay brisk money for this crap?” Clearly, this was a front, the famed hardboiled author conducting a fishing expedition, seeing if his agent would bite.

Sixty years later, I wrote a story named for Chandler’s letter – Brisk Money. The idea was everything – a whole world was open to me, enough not just for a novelette but for a trilogy of hardboiled novels and another in-between novella, Standard Hollywood Depravity – the title, again, taken from Chandler’s letters.

So far, so good. Made to Kill was a blast to write.

And then came book two.

I wouldn’t call it a sophomore slump. Far from it. The three novels were pitched together, right from the start, so I knew what I was doing and where the books were going. But there was one thing in back of my mind while I was working on what became the second novel, Killing Is My Business.

What would Raymond Chandler do?

That mantra, in essence, became the big idea of the book.

The concept of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries is simple: the robot revolution came and went in the 1950s, and Ray is the last robot left in the world, designed to be a private eye working in Hollywood. The only snag to this is that his supercomputer boss, Ada, was programmed to make a profit – and she quickly figured out you could make more money by killing people than finding them. A little tinkering with Ray’s CPU and Ada turns him into an accomplished hit-robot.

Simple enough, and, importantly, an open-ended concept. You could write a hundred stories about a hitman.

Which was actually the problem – because while I could easily write endless hardboiled, noir-ish stories set in Chandler’s seedy LA underbelly, a world full of wiseguys and dames and crooked cops and the mob, that’s nothing that hasn’t been seen before a thousand times. Hell, that’s basically Chandler’s oeuvre and people have been calling him a genius or a hack for the last seventy-plus years.

No, what I had to do was to write science fiction. There was no point in Ray being a robot if that wasn’t vital to the story. Ray had to be the central player in the trilogy – he’s unique, literally, and that has to drive the story arc that stretches across all three books.

So: what would Raymond Chandler do?

More specifically, what would Raymond Chandler do… with a robot?

In Killing Is My Business, Ray’s unique character is used to rather unsubtle effect when he uses his virtually indestructible chassis to protect a mob boss from a drive-by shooting, literally placing himself between the crime lord and his would-be executioners. This is something that only Ray could do. It’s a key scene, the first piece of the story that I had thought of.

And it was also a scene that I knew had to happen – if Ray is a robot then being a robot is the story. With that thought foremost in mind, I could write book two and I could make sure the series as a whole is more than just a set of pastiche crime novels, it was something original.  

Now, if he only Ray Electromatic knew what I torment I had in store for him in book three…

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Killing is My Business: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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