The Big Idea: David Walton

In his Big Idea for Three Laws Lethal, author David Walton introduces you to those who hold your life in their (figurative) hands — whether you like it or not.

DAVID WALTON:

Don’t look now, but intelligent robots are about to decide if you live or die.

Somehow, while we weren’t paying attention, we slipped into a universe where the robots from Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” stories are about to surround us by the millions. The self-driving cars being sold by Tesla and other manufacturers aren’t quite there yet, but we are quickly entering a world where AIs will be making moment by moment choices about your survival. Consider this scenario: Your car is driving you down a two-lane highway with concrete dividers on either side when an I-beam falls off the truck ahead of you. In the other lane is a motorcycle. Should your car swerve, missing the I-beam but hitting the motorcyclist? Or try to brake, knowing it can’t stop in time and possibly killing you? A human driver would act on reflex, but a computer has plenty of time to consider the options and decide who should survive.

My initial “Big Idea” for Three Laws Lethal was simply: Why isn’t anyone writing novels about this?

It’s a topic so overflowing with drama it was hard to choose a focus for the book. Should I write about a tense legal battle over who is responsible for a deadly crash? What about terrorists who hack cars to kidnap passengers, or use them to deliver bombs anonymously? Or maybe it’s the battle between proprietary algorithms kept secret by big corporations vs. open algorithms that consumers can replace by downloading those they like better? Or maybe a deadly war between competing companies to destroy each other’s reputations by causing the others’ algorithms to fail?

In the end, Three Laws Lethal includes all of these scenarios, but its central Big Idea is something that draws all of them together. As all of this drama is unfolding in the outside world, a young female programmer recognizes what others don’t: The AIs driving the cars are exhibiting some surprising emergent behavior. The AIs are trained in a virtual game world, one that uses evolutionary principles so that only the best of them survive to be used in real life. But after thousands of generations, the AIs are evolving survival tactics that reach outside of their expected parameters. In short: the cars are developing goals of their own.

I had something of a eureka moment in the early outlining for this novel when my daughter Naomi–a quiet, caring, quirky introvert–complained that the characters in the books she read were never like her. I realized that her personality was exactly what this novel needed. An introverted, book-loving programmer who struggles with social anxiety would be more likely to sympathize with the AIs than with other humans. So with her permission, I added eight years to her age and made her a main character.

But as I wrote the book, I was left with a question, given Naomi’s empathy for the AIs: Would she warn humanity of the threat? Or would she help the AIs achieve their goals?

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Three Laws Lethal – USA: Amazon | Barnes and Noble | BAM | IndieBound | Audible
Three Laws Lethal – Canada: Amazon.ca | Indigo

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The Big Idea: Richard Kadrey

Cover of Richard Kadrey's

In his new novel The Grand Dark, author Richard Kadrey takes a bit of swerve — and creates a world both like and unlike our own, in a particular time, and in a particular place.

RICHARD KADREY:

I’ve been thinking about The Grand Dark for a long time. Years, in fact. But I couldn’t figure out how to write it. Then, like a lot of my books, the opening just appeared in my head. Stories do that sometimes. I beat my face against the keyboard for days and then—pop!—the whole thing is there. I knew the story was going to get deeply weird, but I didn’t want to jump right into it. So, the book opens with a quiet bike ride through a waking city at dawn. That’s it. Just a guy on a bike.

Of course, the ride isn’t really ordinary. Our young hero, Largo, rides across a bridge that could easily be in 1920s Berlin or Prague, except for the robots. Little food delivery ones and Black Widows—huge spidery bots delivering steel and machine parts to the nearby armaments factory. While stopped at a street light, Largo sees a little delivery bot crushed under the treads of a military vehicle. This should be his first clue that the day isn’t going to go well but, of course, it isn’t.

Most of my books have been set in L.A. or San Francisco. But for The Grand Dark, I wanted to create a world that was completely mine, the way writers such as M. John Harrison created Viriconium and China Mieville created New Crobuzon. In that spirit, I invented Lower Proszawa. I’d been fascinated by the Weimar period in Germany between the First and Second World Wars, so that became the basis for the city.

Lower Proszawa is the somewhat rundown sister city to High Proszawa in the north. But the High City isn’t really there anymore. It was virtually destroyed during the Great War. As the story opens, it’s an uninhabitable ruin of shattered buildings, unexploded ordnance, and plague bombs. Those with the means had escaped the High City at the first hints of war. Now the two populations co-exist in a kind of liminal state made frantic by the knowledge that the Great War hadn’t settled anything and that another war is just over the horizon. And what do you do when you know the world is ending? You party.

There are drugs, sex, and entertainment of every sort in Lower Proszawa. The book revolves around the Theater of the Grand Darkness, a kind of Gran Guignol palace that stages the most gruesome murders imaginable twice a night. The actors are life-size electric puppets brought to life by actors backstage wrapped in metal galvanic suits. My puppet theater was inspired by the work of the brilliant animators, the Brothers Quay, whose The Street of Crocodiles made me wonder what it would be like to put people into their dark and fantastic worlds.

The book’s protagonist, Largo, spends a lot of time at the theater because his lover, Remy, is one of The Grand Dark’s rising stars. With her, Largo’s life seems great. He has a beautiful girlfriend. His job as a bike courier doesn’t pay much, but it’s easy. And, then there’s all the drugs and sex. Plus robots, which Largo hates because they’re taking jobs from humans, and genetically engineered Chimera pets, which Largo longs to create himself.

In a lot of ways, Largo is different from any protagonist I’ve written before. Most of my main characters are powerful and driven. Largo is a twenty-one-year-old innocent, in the sense that he thinks he knows how the world works, but has no real idea what he’s talking about. He’s also scared. He grew up in the slums of Haxan Green, saw his father and best friend murdered there, and is constantly afraid of screwing up enough to lose everything and end up back there. Because of his fear, he becomes the perfect pawn for forces that want to either destroy Lower Proszawa or transform it into something truly awful. This begins with the disappearance and possible murder of Remy. From there, his life takes a series of dark and surreal turns that lead from parties at millionaires’ mansions to the plague pits in the north.

I’m not going to lie to you. The book might have been different—lighter and more amusingly fantastical—if I’d written it at a different moment in history. But the real world always creeps into our work, even if we’re writing about L.A., Mars, or an entirely fictional city. We all live between Great Wars, whether they’re the kind with guns or our everyday struggles to live, create and be at least a little happy in a global shitstorm.

Most of all, though, The Grand Dark is a strange adventure story. You’ll find secret police, strange airborne maladies, carnivals full of the most fantastic Chimeras, clandestine submarine bases, revolutionaries, and weird weapons the world hasn’t seen before. But if you really want the elevator pitch, here it is: The Grand Dark is about a young man and his lover having wine and cocaine at a 1920s Berlin café run by robots and scarred war veterans at the end of the world. Or, at least, the beginning of a new one.

I think it’s the best thing I’ve written. I hope you enjoy it.

—-

The Grand Dark: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Anna Kashina

In today’s Big Idea for her novel Shadowblade, author Anna Kashina reminds us that behind all the swashbuckling, there’s often a serious purpose.

ANNA KASHINA:

During my Shadowblade blog tour, I have written several posts emphasizing the fun I had writing this novel, and I hope that readers picking up this book will experience the same fun. There is indeed a lot of fun elements in the story that made this book a pleasure to work on, including the blade fights, characters, politics, and of course, the romance.

But let me get serious for a moment.

Shadowblade is a story of a young orphan girl with uncertain heritage, Naia, growing up in the Jaihar Order that trains elite blademasters for the Empire. The Jaihar pride themselves on treating both genders equally, especially in their advanced training. But to get to that level Naia must first pass the lower grounds, dominated by drill masters whose role is to initiate young trainees into the Jaihar ways. Here, bullying is a norm, and incidentally all the superiors somehow tend to be male… Is it beginning to resemble any familiar situations?

Studies show that in male-dominated environments, girls and young women tend to experience subtle but very effective forms of bullying that target, and often destroy, their self-esteem. Fighting for emotional dominance, their peers often label them as incompetent, or negative. This is especially hard to deal with because a lot of this behavior is subconscious, based on such deep stereotypes that neither the bully nor the victim tend to realize them. For someone in training, these issues can permanently affect their future. Naia, a young and attractive girl whose major talent involves weapons, has to fight her way through all this, for a chance to rise to the top.

My big idea behind this book is perseverance. It’s the story of a person who doesn’t give up, no matter what the odds are. It’s about those people around her who recognize this, and help her break through all the stereotypes and bad attitude to come out as a winner. Naia’s life is threaded with challenges, all the way up. First as a trainee, where she has to find her way out of very deep trouble and face different tests at each level of her training. And then as a warrior, whose unprecedented assignment plunges her straight into the grinder of the imperial politics, with a low chance of survival and a very large target on her back.

Perseverance has been very important in my own life and career. It’s definitely the only thing that carried me through to where I am today. When I wrote this book, Naia continued to surprise me. She tackled her challenges in ways I never would have thought of – or so it seemed to me. Getting to know her enriched me as a person. I don’t believe that I’m anything like her, really, but I can relate to her in so many ways. I’ve learned things from her that I never expected to.

Layered underneath all the fun – the glittering medieval setting of a rich Middle Eastern empire, the highly technical blade fights, the food, the romance – this big idea is what drove the story for me.

—-

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

Read an excerpt (click on “Excerpt” tag). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Bryan Camp

Cover to Gather the Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Even when you write fantasy, the real world can influence your work. So Bryan Camp discovered when recent events caused to rethink the design of his latest novel, Gather the Fortunes.

BRYAN CAMP:

When I sold my first novel, The City of Lost Fortunes, I was lucky enough (and had a savvy enough agent) to sign a two book contract. I knew that I wanted this next book, which came to be titled Gather the Fortunes, to be set in the same world as its predecessor, but I wanted it to be a new story, a second, stand-alone novel, not a sequel. In fact, my main concern in the early stages of this second book was that I would repeat myself. That I would simply put a new coat of paint on the first book and call it something new.

Thus, my early decisions were a series of sidesteps from the first book: death deities instead of tricksters, a search for a missing person instead of a murder mystery. I knew what I didn’t want Gather the Fortunes to be—and so had a handful of things that it could be—but much to my dismay, I still had no idea what the book would be about. And then in late 2016, things, as they say, took a turn.

The aftermath of that election was a weird time for everyone, but doubly so for someone trying to create art. How do you cheer on the good guys in your fantasy world when, in the real world, the bad guys win? I felt split, torn into two people, one of them a pacifist who had always been cautiously optimistic about the future, and the other a rage-filled cynic who wanted to burn everything down. Eventually I managed to boil a significant portion of my inner turmoil down to a single, difficult question, “how can anyone be a positive force for change if the world fills them up with hate?”

And suddenly I had an idea big enough to build a novel around.

What I didn’t want, though, was a basic good vs. evil dichotomy. “Choosing love over hate” is a story that’s been told many times before, and the question I was grappling with wasn’t that easy to answer. More to the point, humans aren’t that simple. There’s no alignment chart in the real world. We aren’t either all good or all evil, but a walking, conflicted, contradictory capacity for both. What felt far more accurate to me was the idea of the Rada and the Petro nations of loa in voodoo. The Rada are generally seen as benevolent and good, but the more accurate description is that they are “cool” in the sense of calm. Likewise, the Petro, the “dark” side of the family, aren’t evil but “hot” in the sense of angry. That, for me, is a better representation of what people are like. Compassion and forgiveness and reconciliation are all positive forces, and we should all strive for them. But to quote my boy Zach de la Rocha from “Rage Against the Machine,” sometimes anger is a gift.

This big idea led to a lot of fun smaller ones. Gather the Fortunes is a novel filled with doubles and twins and mirrors. There are storm deities and psychopomps and zombies and gods who fill the scavenger part of the supernatural ecosystem. There are themes of violence and power and taking a deep, long look at your place in the world. But at the core of the book is this question of rage, of the desire to destroy.

I won’t tell you how I answered it (I had to write the whole book to figure out how I felt), but for me, part of the answer is that there are two kinds of destruction: necessary and natural destruction like, say, a forest fire, and self-indulgent and artificial destruction, like arson for an insurance payout. We don’t always get to choose our moment in history, or how the world treats us. We don’t get to choose whether our blood runs cold or hot. We don’t get to choose whether we are, a creator, a preserver, or a destroyer at heart. We do, however, get to choose how we act. How we use the capacity for change within us.

And some things, quite frankly, deserve to be destroyed.

—-

The City of Lost Fortunes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll down on the page). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Facebook.

The Big Idea: Maurice Broaddus

The cover of "The Usual Suspects."

Honestly, Maurice Broaddus had me as a reader of The Usual Suspects when he described it as “Encyclopedia Brown meets The Wire,” but as this Big Idea shows, there’s so much more going on here.

MAURICE BROADDUS:

The Usual Suspects is a bit of a departure for me. It’s a middle school detective novel (think “Elmore Leonard for kids” or, as it was pitched, “Encyclopedia Brown meets The Wire”), because I work a lot with children who want to read what I write and, frankly, most of my stuff isn’t “age inappropriate.” In fact, I originally wrote the book to both entertain my oldest son and chronicle some of my children’s antics (it’s the only thing of mine he’s read and he still refers to himself as my original editor). The premise of the story is The Big Idea: when something goes wrong in the school, they round up The Usual Suspects.

Fun fact: I have always shadowed my children through school as a substitute teacher, as sort of a backup for both my children and the staff. When I wasn’t working in either of my sons’ classrooms, I volunteered for a class the school referred to as “Special ED.” That was where they corralled the children with “emotional dysfunction.” Other words that could be used to describe the room include: quarantined, warehoused, or otherwise isolated from their classmates as someone else’s problem.

What I learned was how easy it was to get trapped in a story that follows you. How going through life under the constant haze of suspicion conditions people. But also, that those boys were amazing. They weren’t saints and they got up to some chuckle-headed nonsense, but they were smart, easily bored, and talented, yet as early as fifth grade, the system was letting them know it was giving up on them. They inspired this story, because being considered “usual suspects” was far too many of our everyday lived experience.

The Usual Suspects explores what it means to be a young black boy caught up in the system. To be dealt with under what Thelonius explains in the book as “the spider syndrome”: “when people see a spider, their eyes light up and their heart races because they’re scared. They’re so panicked that they forget that the thing that’s terrifying them is often like one hundred times smaller than them. All they know is all of the bad stories they hear about them, how deadly a bit from one of them can be even though that only applies to a small fraction of them. Spiders look strange to them, different and ugly. Their ways confuse and alarm people like them, the way they skitter across a room, lower themselves on a strand when they don’t expect them, how they leave messy webs wherever they go. So when a person sees one, they’re conditioned to smash it. It’s easy to believe bad stories and let them color how you see things.”

My favorite line from the (starred!) Kirkus review: “Readers will love watching these two uniquely gifted black boys explore the complicated tensions between impulses and choices, independence and support, turnin’ up and getting through.”

Every year I have a new Thelonius and a new Nehemiah to work with (fun fact: when the cover was revealed, one of my current students shaved his head because he was a dead ringer for Thelonius…in more ways than one). Also, I look at my own sons. My job as a parent is to help them learn how best to navigate their way through the world (on their terms). Their fingerprints are all over this book. And my life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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The Usual Suspects: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: W.M. Akers

In novels, detectives follow the “big cases” — but what about the other cases, which need solving? W.M. Akers considers them, and the person who would chase those down, in Westside.

W.M. AKERS:

You will probably never solve a murder mystery. You will probably never personally investigate arson, a hit-and-run, a kidnapping, a bomb threat, insurance fraud, an assassination, or any of the other thrilling crimes that preoccupy most fictional detectives. You are a real person, and though the mysteries of your life are never a matter of life and death, they often feel that way.

That’s what tiny mysteries are all about.

I created Gilda Carr, the hero of Westside, because I wanted to give tiny mysteries their due.

Gilda lives in a twisted version of 1921 Manhattan, in which forces unknown have caused the disappearance of thousands of citizens living west of Broadway. Blocked off from the rest of the city by a massive fence, Gilda’s Westside is overgrown, empty, and bizarre. It is a neighborhood teeming with huge questions, and she has decided to answer none of them.

Her reluctance is a correction to the excesses of her father, a former cop whose obsessive chasing of the city’s largest mysteries ended his career and broke his spirit. To avoid his fate, Gilda chases bits of lost clothing and meaningless personal effects, solving the niggling questions that keep us up at night, no matter how pointless we know they are.

A detective preoccupied with tiny mysteries is something that first came to me after I lost a book. It was, appropriately enough, a book about writing mysteries—a rather good collection of essays edited by Sue Grafton that I checked out from the Brooklyn Library, read a few words of, and lost almost immediately.

It took me some time to realize it was gone. I didn’t see it for a week or two and thought nothing of it. In an apartment like ours, which crams six bookshelves into three rooms and features countless piles of half-read books and unwanted papers, objects tend to wander away and come back of their own accord. When the loan came due, I launched a half-hearted search. On finding that the book wasn’t anywhere within arm’s reach, I renewed the loan and spent another couple of weeks not wondering where it had gone.

This went on for over a year.

Every time the loan came due, I combed the apartment in search of Writing Mysteries, checking over the same six shelves, the same two desks, the same piles of junk, and finding, again, that it was nowhere at all. I kept renewing it—if no one places a hold on a book, you can renew it endlessly—feeling so guilty about my deception that an automated email from the Brooklyn Public Library was enough to make me feel ill. As the year wore on, my searches grew more frantic, until I found myself rooting through kitchen cabinets, looking under furniture, and going through old suitcases in search of a book I’d barely read.

Finally, paranoia took over. Heeding Sherlock Holmes, I decided that the improbable must be the truth: I hadn’t lost the book. The library had. Although I had no memory of doing so, I suddenly and desperately believed that I must have returned the book at some point, only to be thwarted by some filing error that marked it still checked out.

I took this theory to one of the endlessly patient librarians at the Central Branch. They politely explained that what I’d imagined was impossible, and told me that I would have to pay an $84 fine to make up for the loss of the book. I decided $84 was worth it to be rid of the stress, apologized to the librarian, and ponied up, happy that, at last, I could forget the mystery.

And then my brother-in-law threw a bottle of detergent into our storage closet.

My wife and I came home from a trip and found the entire apartment polluted by a horrible chemical smell that my brother-in-law claimed he hadn’t noticed. The source was the far reaches of the closet, where he had celebrated the completion of his laundry by hurling an entire handle of detergent, which had leaked all over the wall, the floor, and everything else in its path, destroying several cubic feet of the unwanted junk that filled our closet to the brim.

As we threw out three trash bags of stuff we should have gotten rid of years before, I felt the same relief that I had when I paid off the library fine for the missing Mysteries. When you have been carrying around something useless and awful for a long time, it is beautiful to simply chuck it. And with that happy thought, I reached the bottom of the pile of newly-minted trash, and saw Sue Grafton’s name.

These are the kinds of mysteries I created Gilda Carr to solve: the kinds of questions, like, “Where the hell did I leave that book?!” that are totally unimportant and yet have the power to get under our skin. She lets the other detectives take the big cases. It’s the tiny ones, she thinks, that matter most of all.

I have absolutely no idea how that book ended up in the back of our closet, piled under so much junk that the detergent couldn’t reach it. But I kept the book—it cost me $84, after all—and put it on a high shelf as a reminder to be more careful with books borrowed from the library.

At least, I think I put it there. I haven’t seen it in a while.

—-

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

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The Big Idea: Wendy Nikel

If you’re a time traveler, keeping the time stream clear of possible contradictions is not your only problem. Author Wendy Nikel knows another one, and it’s at the heart of The Cassandra Complex.

WENDY NIKEL:

In my previous Big Idea entry, I talked about The Grandmother Paradox and how the title of that second book in my Place in Time novella series just seemed to fit perfectly from the very beginning. When it came time to write the third book, though, (which follows 18 years after the events of the second book but can be read as a standalone) The Cassandra Complex wasn’t the first title I had in mind.

When looking at where the characters in the first two books had been and how I’d used the different aspects of time travel to shape their stories to this point, I had a couple “big ideas” in mind.

First, I knew that based on how book two ended, I had to send my new protagonist back in time from her home in the 22nd century to live in the early 20th century in order to keep the timeline straight. I also knew that both protagonists from the previous books had been striving to preserve the established timeline, so for this one, I wanted to do something different. The main character of this book is younger and less experienced in time travel than the previous ones, and it shows. She’s got her own ideas about what the past should look like and isn’t likely to listen to anyone else’s advice – especially that of her parents or older brother. Thus, instead of keeping her head down and keeping the timeline intact, this latest time traveler in the series sets out to make some important changes.

The working title I used for this manuscript was The Compossibility Theory. Compossibility refers to whether two things can exist or happen together, and I’d initially set out to discover whether my main character could change the past without changing so much that she’d cease to exist. Depending on which theory of time travel you subscribe to, this had the potential to create an alternate universe or could cause a reality-destroying paradox. But as I started plotting and writing and putting together her adventures in the past, my protagonist ran into a problem that I wasn’t entirely expecting – a problem which changed the story’s trajectory and, eventually, the title as well.

No one believed her.

And who could blame them? Any time traveler is going to have a hard time convincing people that they’re from the future, and in the year 1914, an 18-year-old girl wasn’t likely to be taken seriously about anything – much less the existence of time travel and warnings about the future. Thus, I had a new problem for my main character to solve – one that lands her in quite a bit of trouble.

That left only the problem of the title. The Compossibility Theory didn’t fit so well anymore now that my Big Idea had taken me in a different direction than I’d anticipated. So I turned to the past for my inspiration.

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a Trojan princess. She was given the gift of prophecy by her admirer, Apollo, but then when she refused his advances, he cursed her so that no one would ever believe any of her prophecies – including ones regarding the destruction of Troy. Today, a “Cassandra complex” refers to when someone’s valid warnings or concerns are dismissed, which is exactly the sort of struggle my main character is up against. One quick name change, and I had the perfect title to a story all about a time traveler trying to make her voice heard.

____

The Cassandra Complex: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes/Apple Books | World Weaver Press

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

The Big Idea: Seanan McGuire

How long did it take Seanan McGuire to write her latest novel, Middlegame? It depends on how you look at it. There’s the typing of it… and then there’s everything else.

SEANAN McGUIRE:

This is the book that took me ten years of writing basically constantly before I could call myself good enough to write it.

That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best thing I’ve ever written, or that it’s going to be anyone’s new favorite, although of course, I hope both those things are true. It just means that from a sheer craft standpoint, it took me a very long time to get all the skills necessary to write what is essentially an alchemical superhero story about family, connection, and time travel. Juggling the various timelines this story required a level of precision that I had to work my way up to. I’m still a little stunned that I was able to manage it. And as the reviews have come in, even the ones that didn’t like the book have been forced to admit that I managed my timelines well, which is really all I had any right to hope for.

The big idea for this book started with a song, called “The Doctrine of Ethos,” written by Dr. Mary Crowell and recorded on her album, Courting My Muse. The very first line, “The Doctrine of Ethos says music’s a force, a microcosm of creation at its source…” seemed to contain an entire world of story. So I started prodding it with a stick.

Since the Doctrine of Ethos comes from Greek philosophy, wedding it with alchemy seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and I very quickly came to the conclusion that our big conflict was between people who wanted to control the Doctrine and the Doctrine itself, which didn’t want to be controlled. But how to make that sympathetic? Easy. Turn the central force of creation into a person. To keep it from being too powerful to be challenged, make it two people, and then make their lives a living hell.

Easy-peezy, pudding and pie. Roger and Dodger were born. Their rhyming names are a function of the sympathetic magic that drives the novel; they’re very different people, for all that they’re biologically identical twins created by the same act of horrific alchemy, but their names mean that they can always be yanked back together. Their names, and their natures. Drawing on more Greek philosophy, namely Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s Symposium, they are very much two halves of the same person, one of the Children of the Moon. They can’t be whole without one another.  But their love is absolutely filial. They’re brother and sister, and they come as a complete package.

(One of the things I had to get good enough to do was write this book without making it easy for anyone to read it and ship my protagonists together. Roger and Dodger are twins. Roger doesn’t like redheads, in part because his sister is one, and Dodger doesn’t like anyone who isn’t secretly a book of calculus problems.)

As the two halves of the Doctrine, Roger and Dodger represent lyrics (Words) and musical structure (Mathematics). They have absolute control over their domains, or they will, once they come firmly enough into their birthrights and assume the full weight of the Doctrine, embodying it completely and giving up any chance they might ever have had of being ordinary people. Not that there was much of a chance of that. In many ways, this book is a superhero origin story about two people coming fully into themselves, and doing it without laser eyes or being able to fly (although they’d appreciate it if they could).

It’s also a book about alchemy. I needed the people who created our protagonists to be grounded in the world around them, which is a lot to ask when you’re talking about alchemical science, and so I read a lot of books on American alchemical thought, and the idea the sometimes alchemists would hide their secrets “in plain sight” to make sure they wouldn’t be forgotten, but also so the alchemists could feel smarter than everyone else, since they knew everything. Asphodel Deborah Baker was born.

A contemporary of Baum, Baker wrote a series of books about a place called the Up-and-Under which were, secretly, an encoded series of alchemical primers. She never achieved Oz-levels of success, but she did quite well, and her books remain in print to this day. Pieces of the first in the series are interspersed throughout Middlegame, and of course I wrote the whole thing. Having a children’s book at the heart of my changeling cosmology seemed only fitting.

When I finally decided that I was ready to write Middlegame, I told my agent about it, and she asked me to write her a pitch. I wrote four pages. She told me it didn’t make any sense, and that she wouldn’t be able to sell it without more detail. I took this as an invitation to go home and write the whole book.  It took me around six weeks to pull out a finished draft. Ten years and six weeks is a reasonable amount of time for a 150,000 word book, right?

I’ve had people get mad at me for punching down at myself when I said that it took me a while to get good enough to do this, but I think the delicacy of the craft speaks for itself.

The Doctrine sings, the astrolabe turns, and now I just need to get good enough to write the sequel.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Rudy Rucker

In this Big Idea for Million Mile Road Trip, author Rudy Rucker describes how he wrote himself into a bit of a corner — and what it was that helped him get out of it. His path is not recommended for others, but it makes for some very fine reading here.

RUDY RUCKER:

I always wanted to write an SF novel about a motley group of characters taking a long journey to visit a lot of planets, some of the travelers human, and some of them alien. To make it more fun, I wanted them to be riding in a car.

Why a car? Well, we already have plenty of SF novels about tourists in spaceliners, emigrants in generation starships, and troops in the space navy. In a car, there’s no captain, and you can ride with the windows open, and you stop wherever you like.

Real-life road trips end before you want them to. You run into a coastline. The road stops. I wanted a road trip that goes on and on, with ever new adventures, and with opportunities to reach terrain never tread upon before. But how to do that in a car?

I peeled Earth like a grape, snipped out the oceans, shaped the flattened skin into a disk, and put a mountain range around it. Then I laid down a bunch more of these planetary rinds, arranging them like hexagonal tiles on a very wide-ranging floor. All set for a Million Mile Road Trip.

How did I decide on a million miles? Well, the edited-down Earth disk has a diameter of about ten thousand miles. And if we’re generous and say our roadtrip will run across about a hundred similar planet-like disks—then we’ve got a million miles. 100 × 10,000 is 1,000,000. Nice and tidy.

By the time I was two-thirds done with my novel I realized I’d only traveled through six worlds. I needed to pick up the pace. The acceleration part was easy. I introduced an invented-on-the-spot SF technology that I called stratocasting (for the Fender guitar). The hard part was actually imagining a whole lot of worlds. I figured describing thirty of them would be enough, and the rest could be a blur. But I was having trouble getting thirty unique worlds together.

At this point, in January 2016, real life intervened. I had to go into the hospital for an especially traumatic hip operation.

After the operation, I woke, soaked in sweat, in a state of delirium at half-past midnight. My bed seemed like the edge of an alleyway, and I was like a wet rag of clothing lying there, a wadded shirt. A nothing. Pathetic. Lost. Undone.

I was unable to remember who I was, or where, or what my significance was, or what ordeal I was undergoing, or what I was supposed to do. A wet crooked rag in an alleyway. Eventually I found the ringer-button to call a nurse. She was sympathetic.

And then, on the table by my bed, I spotted the paper scrap with my marked-up draft of the “Stratocast” chapter for Million Mile Road Trip. Ah, yes. I told the nurse I was a writer, and that the scrap was from a science fiction novel I was working on, and  that I would now try to recover my personality by thinking about my book. She approved.

I had all the time in the world, anonymous in the middle of a hospital night. I set to work, typing till 3 am. I was happy to be writing in such an extreme situation. I ran my characters across twenty or thirty planet-sized basins in a single chapter. A surreal mural in my mind.

That hospital experience reminds me of a sentence in a short story, “Miss Mouse and the Fourth Dimension,” written by Robert Sheckley, the SF-writer-hero of my youth, and later my mentor. He was a wise, hip guy, and deeply funny to boot. Here’s Sheckley’s line: “A genuine writer is a person who will descend voluntarily into the flaming pits of hell for all eternity, as long as they’re allowed to record their impressions and send them back to Earth for publication.”

I always think a lot about what I’m writing. I’m a perfectionist. On the days when I can’t get anywhere on my current novel, I work on my notes for it, thinking about my world and about the invented logical explanation behind it. It’s a dialectical process. The thesis is the fantastic vision, the antithesis is the pseudoscientific explanation, the synthesis is ramifying linkage between the two, and the process is the the act of shuttling back and forth, repeatedly adding to the vision and the theory.

Of course, Million Mile Road Trip is no ponderous work of phenomenology. It’s light and playful. The heroes are three high-school kids with bad attitudes. And the aliens they encounter are, to say the least, flaky.

Another element that influenced my composition is the style of Thomas Pynchon. I wanted to write a novel in the present tense like he does. Often readers don’t consciously notice what tense a novel is written in—like, is it past or present? But for writers it’s a fraught decision. I found that using the present tense gives a chatty feel, like someone recounting a tale. Another Pynchon move is to rotate the point of view from chapter to chapter. And he writes very close-up to the current point-of-view character, producing an effect like a real-time stream of consciousness.

Regarding locale, I like to fold my real surroundings into my SF novels—it’s what I call transrealism. SF that’s set in the real world.

This time around, my transreal world includes flying saucers—and they’re not boring machines, no, they’re live beings made of meat. The aliens don’t ride in flying saucers, dude, they are flying saucers. (I don’t understand why more people don’t realize this!) Be that as it may, you can’t really have flying saucers in a novel without a full-on Attack of the Flying Saucers. And what better setting for such a scene than—the annual graduation at our local Los Gatos High School! I’ve been to quite a few graduations there.

It’s all here. Check it out.

—-

Million Mile Road Trip: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powells

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

 

The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

For the novel Outside the Gates of Eden, acclaimed author Lewis Shiner goes back in time, just a bit, to uncover the what it is people of his generational cohort have brought into the present moment.

LEWIS SHINER:

As I got close to finishing my seventh novel, Dark Tangos, it was time to think about what might be next. I’d just read Anna Karenina for the first time, and it had amped up my literary ambitions. What would Tolstoy write about, I wondered, if he were alive right now? Or, to put it another way, what was the most important conflict of my generation?

The answer came so quickly it was like it had been lying in wait: the death of 1960s idealism and the rise of the culture of greed.

***

I’d never written a book by starting with a high concept. My previous novels were inspired by historical incidents or particular obsessions of mine, and they usually announced themselves with dialog playing out in my head. Specifics first, generalities later. In this case the idea had such a grip on me that the specifics came tumbling along after it–the main characters, the first scenes, various milestones along the course of what I immediately knew was going to be at least a thousand-page manuscript.

What I didn’t know was why. What happened to our Revolution? To all our revolutions? How did the rich come to own the moral high ground along with all the banks and houses? I hoped the answers would come with the writing.

And if Outside the Gates of Eden does answer those questions, it’s in a novelistic way. Which is to say, I don’t expect readers to extract simple answers and match them to numbered questions printed in the back. Instead I hope that the experience of (re)living those years in the controlled environment of a novel will leave them feeling like maybe they understand something in a visceral way that they didn’t understand before.

What I can offer here are a few core issues that emerged during the writing, compass points that I consulted whenever I found myself asking, “Where am I going with this, again?”

***

The first thing I figured out about the 1960s was that they fell into the last sweet spot on a graph with two intersecting lines. The first was the rising line of white, middle-class affluence. In practical terms, this meant that for the first time ever, most kids didn’t have to go to work at 16. Instead, millions of them could go to college and ask questions about why things had to be the way they’d always been.

The other line was the descending line of finite resources. Just as those millions of college students were revving up to change the world, the Club of Rome think tank issued a report called The Limits to Growth (1972), which was followed immediately by the 1973 oil crisis, which made it obvious to every automobile owner in the US that there was no longer enough to go around.

Suddenly a lot of people who’d been saying “Love thy neighbor” were saying “Me first.”

Also in 1973, Nixon finally kept his 1968 campaign promise to end the war in Vietnam. The war had been the number-one unifying issue for the counterculture since the mid-sixties. When the troops started coming home, no other cause was universal enough to take its place.

There was more. School busing alienated the working class, both white and black. Stagflation hit everyone in the wallet, and economists couldn’t explain it or fix it. Even as charismatic figures continued to arise on the right–most prominently Ronald Reagan–the left was devastated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

The public attacks on the movement and its leaders were bad enough. Even worse was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which infiltrated every radical organization from the Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement, disrupting meetings, pushing for increasingly violent and bizarre agendas, creating and widening the fracture lines within the groups.

The lack of leadership was crippling. It’s a sad truth that for every ten protestors at a rally, nine were there mainly in hopes of getting high or getting laid. Keeping the actual idealists motivated and active required a major effort, one the establishment undermined in every way they could.

Television proved their most potent weapon. Over the years, the constant mocking images of flower children and shaggy radicals made sincerity laughable and started us on the path to where we are now, where irony is the dominant cultural mode and “hippie” is just another Halloween costume for sale at Target.

And yet. Despite the odds, despite the defeats, images of the sixties endure. The words “Woodstock Nation” and “Peace and Love” still carry power down through the generations. With Donald Trump acting out the worst of crony capitalism on the daily news feed, more and more people are realizing that community, charity, and conscience really are our only hope for the future. And that is the biggest idea of Outside the Gates of Eden.

—-

Outside the Gates of Eden: Subterranean Press|Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

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

The Big Idea: Clark Thomas Carlton

In the immortal words of Steve Martin, “Let’s get small.” How small? Well, in Clark Thomas Carlton’s latest novel, The Prophet of the Termite God, it’s going to be very small indeed.

CLARK THOMAS CARLTON:

Yep, it came to me in a dream, the Big Idea about a far-flung future where mini-humans live as the parasites of insects.

I was exploring the Yucatan, climbing to the top of an ancient pyramid where the hearts of human sacrifices had been plucked and offered to bloodthirsty gods in return for rain and a good crop of corn. The skins of the sacrificed might be flayed and worn by Maya priests to express their piety: the equivalent of a monk’s hair shirt. The first Spaniards were appalled by this gruesome misuse of religion and then misused their own to conquer and enslave the natives.

In the place we now call Mexico, the Spanish instituted a repressive caste system similar to the one in India and the American South where a person’s status was and is still determined by skin color and race. In the face of my tour guide, I saw the brown skin of his Maya ancestors, but his mustache spoke of some Castilian blood.

Unlike the sacrificed humans, I was able to descend from the pyramid in Tulum with my heart intact. I was sipping a watermelon margarita by the hotel pool while munching on Spanish peanuts when one of them fell under my lounger. A minute later, I witnessed two different kinds of ants locked in a furious tug-of-peanut. The peanut split in two which should have provided a peaceful solution, but the ants did not stop fighting. I watched this battle until we were called to dinner.

That night I dreamed I was a captain riding into war. I was not charging from atop a horse but on a saddled black ant. From under the shade of a golden poppy, I looked over my army: thousands of tiny men, astride their own ants with bows and arrows and lances at the ready. Before us was a battlefield of massive, glistening sand grains. In the distance, our hated enemy was racing towards us on mounts of red ants. Arrows flew at us when one pierced my cheek. I tasted blood and was spitting out broken teeth when I woke with a start and realized I was safe between sheets of 400 thread count. I hastily wrote the dream down on the back of an envelope and knew it was the premise for a novel … an exciting premise. I told the dream to my partner who gave me an Uncle Milton’s Ant Farm for Christmas.

The Ant Farm brought me back to my childhood fascination with insects and ants in particular. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Eckhart, encouraged us to make crude ant habitats by digging up colonies with a spade and inserting them, as best we could, into a mayonnaise jar with a little bacon grease as nourishment. But I suffered as I watched these ants. Their home had been upended, and they struggled to remake their tunnels and find their way to each other. Their queen had likely been crushed or suffocated or was left behind in the wreck of her tunnels.

I chose a more humane observation of ants on a stretch of orange sand behind my house. Colonies were plentiful and black ants were building their mound just a few dangerous feet away from a mound of red ants. I tried to incite them into war by leaving bread crumbs on the sand but they ignored my provocation and kept a truce.

One morning I found the black and red tribes at war — an inevitable, territorial conflict — and it was something that lasted an entire, apocalyptic day. The ants had no weapons, but through a magnifying glass I watched in horror as they sliced each other into pieces. Their legs and severed heads were strewn across the sand. It struck me that these tiny, six legged creatures were so unlike humans and yet they were a kind of mirror.

“(The) foreign policy (of ants) can be summed up as follows: restless aggression, territorial conquest, and genocidal annihilation of neighboring colonies … if ants had nuclear weapons, they would probably end the world in a week.” That is a quote from Dr. Edward O. Wlson, the Second Darwin, the father of evolutionary biology and the world’s foremost myrmecologist. If I was going to write convincingly about tiny people living among ants, I would need to read Wilson and Holbdobbler’s The Ants, the bible of myrmecology.

I plunged myself into the study of ants.  I learned they had stratified societies with a division of labor. They built functional structures with compartments that included nurseries, water storage and trash dumps. Some of them were farmers, some were raiders and slavers. And they waged wars with specialized soldier ants, the “old ladies” they sent to war, that fought together with astonishing coordination.

I avoided movies and pop-culture books about human and ant interactions. When the miniaturized children of the movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids meet an ant, they befriend it, make it a pet and name him Antie. In reality, ants would use their antennae to sniff out the kids as ‘other’ and then flee … or attack. I learned that ants have parasites — beetles, butterflies and spiders — who can infiltrate and exploit them by replicating or stealing their colony odor. This is what my mini-humans, the extreme result of island dwarfism, would do to parasitize ants: steal their kin scent as a disguise. This would allow humans to live safely in an ant colony to harvest them as food, yoke them to labors and ride them into war.

But what about a plot?

I do not in any way encourage writers to take hallucinogenics in hopes that it will bring them a talent for invention. That just won’t happen, and there are dangers in taking unregulated drugs.  But I would be lying if I didn’t admit the narrative and imagery and — most importantly — the feelings for my novel came to me on the sixth night of Burning Man.

Before the effigy went up in flames, I licked a brown splash of something off the back of my hand. Immediately, I felt as if the top of my skull had been opened with a rotary saw and the world was pouring in. Only later did I learn I’d consumed between 20 and 25 hits of acid.

Do not try this at home without the supervision of a qualified professional. Do not. LSD isn’t for everyone.

I drifted through a costumed crowd and art installations as multiple movies of what had been and might have been my life played in my head, some of them running backwards. As I dodged mutant vehicles, harsh truths erupted about myself and my own limitations as well as regrets about some Big Decisions. It was ten years of psychoanalysis in a single hour.

The stimulus of an instant city dedicated to radical self expression was too much while I was under so much influence. I wandered out to the blackness of the playa until I could no longer hear the clashing music. After taking what seemed like the longest pee of my life — the draining of the Tigris and the Euphrates — I sat and stared into a cloudy sky of turbulent ink to watch the movie that would become my book. The scenes were loosely pieced together and in need of a massive edit. What I saw was an exciting, sensuous adventure and an immersion into man’s inhumanity to man … and woman. The next two years was devoured by unraveling that vision, writing it down and then shaping and shaping and shaping it some more.

My acid trip at Burning Man was a spectacular yet joyless mega-bummer but it exposed a wealth of raw feelings I had repressed in order to function. And emerging from those feelings, I saw the journey of my flawed and wounded hero: an outcast boy who refused to accept the catastrophe of his existence.

I wanted to write a story that reminded other white, middle class Americans like me that what we have is not the norm. Most of the world does not enjoy our medicine, our schools, our electricity and our indoor toilets. Billions of human beings today would be astonished by the hundred kinds of ice cream in our local grocer’s freezer. I wanted to write about my frustration with the human tendency not to share and uplift but to horde and exclude. For so many at the top, it’s no fun to be rich if you can’t lord it over the poor.

The idea of humans living intertwined with ants allowed me to attempt a grand analogy, one that showed how both species were slaves to their instincts for war and territorial expansion. In the world of the Antasy series, humans justify the cruelties of their caste system because they see it in their ants, the order created by their gods.

The best work I’ve ever done starts with feelings and the need to express them. I’ll stop writing when I stop feeling.

The sequel to Prophets of the Ghost Ants did not come out of a dream or a chemically enhanced vision. The Prophet of the Termite God burst from my crushing disappointment in the 2016 presidential election. My alarm, sadness and depression were a strange and powerful fuel as I watched the values of fairness, inclusion and concern for all shift to exclusion, nationalism and the celebration of greed and treachery. I got no sleep that night, but for weeks afterward all I wanted to do was sleep … to sleep perchance to dream.

The dream that inspired my novel wasn’t a gift from a god or a magic message. I worked for it. Countless scientists, musicians and writers have had dreams where they received an important idea, but it was something they were already working on, something that resolved in their unconscious and emerged in a dream. I was looking for this story and doing research for it as I traveled and read about human social systems and the nature of hierarchies.

So dream big, everybody. Or, in my case, dream very, very small.

—-

The Prophet of the Termite God: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Visit the author’s website. Follow him on twitter.

The Big Idea: David Quantick

For his novel All My Colors, author David Quantick had his protagonist do a very bad thing. No, not murder. No, not assault. Something much worse: Plagiarism! Of a sort

DAVID QUANTICK:

There was this short story. I could remember how it began and how it ended, but that was all. I forgot the name of the story and the name of the writer. I knew it was in a sci-fi anthology because that’s how I’d found it, in my local library when I was a teenager and all I read were sci-fi anthologies. I went online and I bought old sci-fi anthologies, but it wasn’t in any of them.

One day I got so frustrated by not being able to find the story that I lost my mind slightly and considered writing it myself. I talked myself out of this insane plan quite quickly – as well as being a rip-off, the story would just be a mess – but something stuck in my brain. What if someone did that for real? Wrote a story that already existed and passed it off as their own? And what if the story was more than a story, it was a classic novel, like Catch-22 or Lord Of The Rings, and somehow it had been erased from everyone’s memory?

And wouldn’t the person who wrote that book deserve to be… punished?

When you have an idea, it can go lots of different ways. This idea was not just a book idea, but it was the basis of a horror novel. I don’t know why I thought that, but it just worked that way for me. I’d never written a horror novel, but I love Stephen King and Neil Gaiman and I could see this being like Richard Bachman’s Thinner – not the same plot at all, but the same working-out of the plot. Thinner is one of the most relentless books ever written. A man upsets someone, they curse him, he gets thinner, and that’s it. The same with All My Colors. A man steals an idea, writes it, there are consequences and that’s it.

Except obviously that’s not it. I wanted to make my writer – Todd Milstead – an asshole. I thought that would be more fun, especially when bad things are happening to him, and there was something about the way he treated women in the story that was interesting as well. So the consequences of him stealing the idea – and he has an eidetic memory, so when he writes the book, he literally does that, copies it out of his asshole brain – would be fun, for me if not for him, and they would be something to do with Todd and women.

After that, the other decisions fell into place. The Bachman aspect of the book made me want to set it in the late ‘70s, like a real Bachman book, and to set it in America. In my first marriage, I’d spent a lot of time in Illinois, near DeKalb and Aurora, and I thought it would be more interesting if the book was set there, rather than New York or Los Angeles (although New York does turn up). And also I could have fun making a soundtrack.

I love American ‘70s rock, FM or AOR or whatever it’s called. The logo bands. Boston, Kansas, Styx, Toto… they somehow suited Todd, who wouldn’t be a music obsessive like me, but would do a lot of driving with the radio on, singing along to songs by bands he didn’t know the names of. And when I thought about Bat Out Of Hell, the insane vampire Springsteen anthem written by Jim Steinman and sung by Meat Loaf – it’s one of my all-time favourite albums – I had a lot of new ideas.

That said, the book could have been set almost anywhere at almost any time because the core of it – the central theme – is nothing to do with Meat Loaf, or Illinois, or even jerks, but men and women, and men being jerks to woman – and other men – and, to some extent, about creativity and writing (Todd enjoys all the trappings of being a writer but he can’t write at all). It wasn’t actually meant to be a funny book but people have seen humour in it, which is fine (I have written on TV shows like Veep and The Thick Of It) and some of it is meant to be scary, and people have also said it’s scary, which is very much fine. Mostly, though, I think it’s about making a morally wrong decision, and discovering that what you thought was going to be a dream is actually a nightmare.

Which, now I remember it, is what that short story that I could never find was about.

—-

All My Colors: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|IndieBound|Powell’s

Follow the author on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Meg Elison

Today in The Big Idea, author Meg Elison delves into her latest novel The Book of Flora, and radical power of a single, very short, word.

MEG ELISON:

It’s impossible to talk about the third and final book in a series without talking about the whole thing. The big idea of the third book rests squarely on the base laid by the first two, and the idea of the whole series changes as the last part is written.

The Big Idea of The Book of the Unnamed Midwife was that women are people.

The Big Idea of The Book of Etta was that ideals are difficult to maintain when they compete with survival.

The Big Idea of The Book of Flora is that every person has a body that belongs to only them.

This is another idea that strikes as radical when it should not. The characters in the Road to Nowhere series cope (as we all do) with the way other people sometimes think they have the right to define our bodies, to control them, to legislate for them, and to name them. Flora in particular is vulnerable to these desires; as a trans woman (or Horsewoman, as her culture is called in this world) she is often concerned with the way different cultures will perceive and define her. The world of this book prizes femininity but subjugates it all the same. In some places, she is regarded as powerful and valuable. In others, she is afforded the disgust reserved for people who fail to perform womanhood in the culturally correct manner.

Other characters struggle with the same problem, but in different ways. How often is the “preservation of the species” trope invoked to get people breeding in an orderly fashion in a dystopian novel? My characters are queer. Their expectations of childbirth are bloody and bleak. Their insistence on ownership over their own bodies invokes discussions of birth control, abortion, and reproductive behavior in a way that post-apocalyptic novels often treat as a settled idea. If the human race is in danger, surely people with uteruses will simply give up on the idea of self-ownership and submit to their fate as vessels! This entire subgenre takes for granted that if imperiled enough, people will accept compulsory heterosexuality and forfeit basic autonomy.

My characters stay queer and say no.

Flora says no to a lot of things. She says no to the all-women city of Shy (Chicago), despite its wealth and welcome. She says no to the people who try to talk her out of adopting her child, Connie. She says no to anyone who tries to possess her, or define her. Flora knows exactly who she is. Those of us who had to earn our identities the hard way will recognize how powerful that NO really is.

As your body belongs only to you, so too does your story. Characters in these books keep journals and decide what they want to reveal and what to keep. They decide rather to pass their story on or let it die with them. They decide whether to perform their trauma in order to be believed, or to protect themselves and go without whatever that belief might proffer. These are choices that you might face, too. These are all questions I’ve had to answer for myself, revisit my answers, and allow my understanding of myself to change based on them.

Flora is a book about choosing your story, rewriting it and making changes until you hear your own voice. It is about being in your body, being one with it and making peace with it, revising it until you recognize yourself. It is about Flora, who is better at both of those things than most people who have not faced down one apocalypse after another.

We have come to the end of the Road to Nowhere. Thank you for walking with me and reading all my big ideas, strange as they are. This final book is dedicated to all the radical queers in my life, and I am grateful and proud to have put more queer art into the world.

Rage on!

—-

The Book of Flora: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s website. Follow her on twitter.

The Big Idea: Lara Elena Donnelly

When, as a writer, you find yourself caught between two tropes, what do you do? And is it a bad thing that you’re confronting two separate writing tropes in the first place? In her series that began with the book Amberlough and continues now in Amnesty, the third book, author Lara Elena Donnelly confronts her tropes and finds a way through them.

LARA ELENA DONNELLY: 

For a long, long time, Amnesty was nothing but a big idea.

My debut novel, Amberlough, was meant to be a standalone. A tragedy with a bitter ending, the only hope in a burgeoning resistance driven by death and loss. A story about people who fail, over and over again, to communicate with each other. Who fail to stake a moral, political, or emotional claim early enough to make a difference.

The character who fails biggest is Cyril DePaul. Already back-benched when the book starts, after a botched mission that’s left his confidence shattered, every decision he makes has his own interests at its heart. Nobody else’s enter into it. Even his gambit to save the life of his lover is self-centered; who wants to save their own skin only to live on lonely?

When I first wrote Amberlough, Cyril perished on the page. I had read enough spy novels to know that the bad spy usually dies. It’s not a job you can half-ass or bumble around in and still expect to avoid a bullet in the back of the head.

But I had also read enough fiction to know that being queer is another way to end up dead by the end of the novel. Cyril’s death fell pretty neatly into the trope known as “Bury Your Gays.”

I was caught between two tropes: one I wanted to lean into, and another I had frowned over in many other media properties. And I had gotten myself there by thinking how satisfying it would be to queer such a macho genre as the spy novel (though let’s be honest: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy had already done it, and done it well).

But all of this isn’t my big idea. My big idea came when feedback from my editorial team poked at the ending–both my agent and my editor earmarked the potentially problematic death. Could we not just make it a little more open-ended? Not quite so…death-y?

I was torn, and also confused and kind of angry. I had written this ending knowing full well the risk I ran, and chosen to keep it during submissions because it felt right for the story and the character’s arc. I also didn’t think I would have been urged to unkill a straight character.

I have a lot of complicated feelings about tragic queers. But as several friends have said to me lately, “complicated is good. Complicated means it’s worth discussing.”

I felt then–and still feel, a lot of the time–that often there is a pressure on queer characters and queer stories to combat the “Bury Your Gays” trope, or the gay villain trope, or any number of other tropes, by telling stories without death, without tragedy, without detestable people. And yes, the world deserves happy, heroic queer characters. But it also deserves nuanced stories about flawed and fully-developed queer characters who sometimes hurt others and are hurt themselves.

Queer characters have been dying in fiction for a long time: as moral censure, as motivation for straight characters, to lend tragic savor to the story of straight heroes. Often the queer character who dies is the only queer character in story, and death is the only end we see for them. And obviously that’s a problem.

Unfortunately, nowadays the labor of undoing the harm caused by these tropes usually falls on stories that center queer characters–often on stories by authors who are queer themselves. Many queer authors hesitate to write stories based in their own experience, wondering if they are too dark, if they perpetuate the tragic queer narrative. And many times, straight authors including queer characters in heroic, happy narratives write versions of queer people that feel disingenuous or flat; that don’t engage with the nuances of living with a queer identity, some of which can be complicated and yes, painful.

I don’t like the idea that tropes–even Bury Your Gays–should be avoided at all costs. It’s not only simplistic, it’s impossible. If you write fiction, you’re going to write a trope someday. My take on tropes is that when they show up in a story they shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but interrogated, turned on their head, and shaken down for their milk money.

So, I wrote two more books. And here we come to my big idea. There are spoilers ahead, so be wary if you mind that kind of thing.

Removing an explicit death scene and replacing it with a much more open-ended culmination felt strange to me, as an ending for a standalone. And the idea that this simple elision addressed the tragic queer trope didn’t quite scan for me; the book is still a tragedy. It still features queer characters. Changing that final scene with Cyril was symbolic, yes, but felt hollow somehow–like it lacked the intended resonance of the original ending. It felt like avoiding a trope on a technicality.

Still, given the feedback, I began to envision a further arc to the story; if Cyril didn’t die, what would his life look like? As a bad spy, a poor communicator, a child of privilege, and a fascist collaborator burdened by guilt, where would he go in this world turned upside down by political upheaval? And, if he ever surfaced again, how would he be treated by his friends, family, lovers, and public opinion?

Essentially: if death was not the final note in a tragic character arc marked by personal failures, what could I replace it with? What was a fate worse than death, to and for Cyril DePaul?

Facing the music, of course.

In Amberlough, death was a consequence for a long string of bad decisions made by a desperate man with flexible morals. I started thinking of the stack of consequences Cyril would have to face if he lived. There were a lot of them, ten times more complicated than a clean death might have been. And they were harder for Cyril to take, as a character, which as any writer knows makes for rich material.

In essence, my big idea was, “If I avoid this trope, it won’t be on a technicality. It will be on my own terms. And those terms will be devastating.”

In the actual writing of the book, things turned out differently than I had envisioned when I set out. But I hope I still succeeded in turning the simple evasion of a trope into something much thornier, that has readers asking themselves questions about guilt and redemption and who is forgiven for what, by whom, and why.

—-

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

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

The Big Idea: Ashok K. Banker

For this Big Idea, Ashok K. Banker writes an epistolary essay to someone who is not me, about his new novel, Upon a Burning Throne. Who is the recipient of this letter, and why is sent to them? Read on.

ASHOK K. BANKER:

Hey there, Effie.

We’ve known each other a while, you and I.

That’s why I get to call you Effie. I know you don’t let anyone else call you that. It’s our special thing.

The folks reading this are wondering what I’m on about. Who the eff is Effie, they want to know.

John, whose blog this piece is appearing on, also wants to know What’s the Big Idea.

I’m getting there.

First, let me introduce y’all to someone who needs no introduction.

Epic Fantasy.

EF, in short.

But she’ll always be Effie, to me.

Effie and I have been close for a very long time.

In a sense, she was my first love.

I first discovered her in an encyclopedia called The Book of Knowledge. It was this set of oversized hardcover volumes bound in midnight blue cloth. In the articles on Mythology, I first came across the world of fantastic beings, demi-gods, legendary heroes, amazing quests, epic battles, incredible worlds.

Sure, it was called Mythology.

But even back then, I saw it for what it really was.

Epic Fantasy.

I devoured all those articles over and over. I tried tracing out the wonderful illustrations (mostly classic paintings reproduced) and coloring them so I could pin them over my bed. I was really young at this point, so young I don’t even want to admit how young I was, and reading those articles in that encyclopedia also made me aware of how easy and enjoyable this thing called reading could be. So much so, that it got me hooked to reading way above my age level, a practice that continued throughout my childhood and adolescent years. So in a sense, Effie was the one who got me hooked on reading for life.

Soon, I graduated to entire books about mythology, myths, fables, fairy tales, and inevitably, science fiction and fantasy.

You have to remember that back then, Epic Fantasy as a publishing label didn’t really exist.

Back then, people like Isaac Asimov were still arguing that all imaginative fiction was really fantasy, a view which (as I recall) didn’t go down well with many die-hard conservationists of “hard” science fiction. Tolkien was only just starting to be rediscovered by a whole new generation of readers in America. And most epic fantasy books tended to be really short standalone paperback novels a couple hundred pages long at most. They were put out by the same imprints that published SF and there was often an apologetic air about them, almost as if the publishers and editors were saying “Hey, here’s a side order of fantasy to go with your SF. Now, let’s get back to talking about our main course, Science Fiction, the big granddaddy of all genre.”

But I could always recognize you, Effie, even when they covered you up like a nun with a bad habit.

You went by many names, like a secret agent donning multiple disguises for a variety of undercover missions.

You were Mythology. You were Legend. You were Science Fiction. You were Adventure. You were Historical. You were Superhero. You were Speculative.

And always, you were Epic and Fantastic.

Effie, forever.

As time went by and Tolkien became a rage in America, setting off a feeding frenzy among readers, publishers, authors, all hungry for “more of the same but different”.

A rumbling army of writers went to work. Reprocessing Tolkien but with more American-friendly prose and dialogue. Reworking the tropes but tweaking them just enough to make them their own, but also undeniably more…American.

The Americanization of Effie began, even as people acknowledged that Effie herself existed.

The gatekeepers processed you through the Ellis Island of US Publishing and turned you into an Apple Pie version of yourself.

A lot of terrific books came out of it.

Some better than others, some truly awesome, others…not so much.

Always readable, occasionally brilliant, but always… American.

Even when there were orcs and trollocs, goblins and elves, stone castles on high mountains, sieges and battles, great roaring armies of the undead, dark lords and white knights, somehow it all read like it had been processed through a machine that marked everything with a “Made in USA” tattoo.

American hero in a strange land. Fantastical worlds that looked different at a glance, but were really just American versions of what were supposed look to like “other” worlds.

Gone were the inscrutable mysteries of cultures and minds that were so far removed from our own present day that they were truly different.

Gone was the magic of bygone eras that had never existed and probably never would.

Gone was the sense of wonder that came from discovering fantastical worlds perceived through genuinely alien eyes.

In their place were now the familiar characters, personalities, ways of talking, acting, responding, behaving, as any of the equally familiar puppets that moved their lips and hips in American TV shows and movies.

Everything was “relatable”.

The fascination of the unknown, the shock of the unseen, the delight of the never-before-experienced was gone.

Replaced overnight by doppelganger tropes that simulated the original ones but were really just super chain franchise product.

They pretty much effed you up, Effie.

Turned you into something that went against the very grain of what you were.

Even at its most diverse, its most inclusive, its most genre-bending, globalizing, all-embracing best, American Epic Fantasy was now painfully…American.

So here’s my Big Idea.

(Yeah, finally.)

I took this epic poem called the Mahabharata, composed in Sanskrit some thousands of years ago. Some say, it’s the oldest story ever written. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the biggest, and the most audacious, ambitious, mother of stories you’ve ever read. It’s truly a mothership of Epic Fantasy. Every genre, every trope, every plot, every character, every twist, every scene you could possibly think of, is in there, and then some.

There’s a line in the Mahabharata itself about itself – yes, this is an epic that spends a lot of time talking about itself, the ultimate self-aware sentient story cycle – that says “Everything you seek is here. What is not here, is nowhere else.” After decades poring over it time and again, I can pretty much confirm that with two thumbs up.

But I didn’t just take this epic and Effie it up.

No, sir.

I set out to write an original Effie that would not reference anything, anyone, or be in any way, American.

A genuinely “other” Epic Fantasy.

The result, Effie, is my love song to you.

It’s called the Burnt Empire Saga.

Like the title, it’s just a tad bitter at first taste, because, well, it’s not the usual fare served in America.

It’s spicy, as in, real Indian spicy – not the stuff that they serve up in (the wonderful) Indian restaurants here in the USA – the kind of Indian spicy that has sweat pouring down your face and all your mucus membranes (and I do mean, all) on fire for several hours, but is goddamn awesome. It sets your hair on fire and you will never again be able to settle for sugar-laced American chain food once you acquire a taste for it.

The first book is called Upon a Burning Throne.

It sets bookstores on fire on April 16, 2019.

And just to prove how un-American it is, Effie, let me give the readers of this piece a teensy-weensy example.

The main protagonist of the entire series only appears very briefly in this first book.

And she’s just a baby in that one chapter.

Her story actually begins in Book 2, A Dark Queen Rises, which comes out next year.

Because this is not an American Epic Fantasy.

It’s not even an Indian Epic Fantasy.

Sure, it’s inspired by Indian mythology, and the DNA of the Mahabharata is all over it.

But that’s like saying I’m Irish because my grandmother was Irish. (True.)

Or that I’m Portuguese because my grandfather was Portuguese. (Ditto.)

Or that I’m Sri Lankan. (Ditto.) Or Indian. (Ditto.)

I’m all those things and then some.

And the Burnt Empire Saga is a lot of things too.

But one thing it’s not is American.

Check it out if you want to see what that’s like.

As for me, I’m happy to take back Effie to her roots.

The unknowable, inscrutable, not-quite-human-yet-intensely-humanistic mythopoetic mystery realm of the forgotten, the never-was, and never-will-be.

That’s where you belong, Effie.

That’s my tribute to you.

Accept this offering with all my love and humility, Effie.

It’s yours now.

—-

Upon a Burning Throne: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (scroll to the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Michael Moreci

If you’re a writer, is it better to be the proverbial tortoise or the proverbial hare? And does either matter as long as you’re still running the race? Michael Moreci considers this topic today in his Big Idea, and how it relates to his newly released novel, We Are Mayhem.

MICHAEL MORECI:

Selling books is hard.

Now, I’m certain this isn’t news to most people who read this blog, or anyone familiar with the book market in general. It’s no secret that most books are not bestsellers. In fact, most books end up losing money for their publisher. I came into the book world from comics; when my debut novel, last year’s Black Star Renegades, was published, I already had a track record writing both original and licensed comic books. And, to be certain, comics and books aren’t all that dissimilar—especially when it comes to profitability. Still, I experienced a learning curve when entering the book world, and I’m still learning today.

I’ll never forget what my sales rep told me, soon after Black Star Renegades was released. We’d met by happenstance—well, happenstance and some assistance from my friend and bookseller extraordinaire, Javier—and she imparted a piece of advice that has stuck with me. She said: The important thing is for your book to keep selling; so many books come out, sell for a few weeks, and vanish. They never sell again.

I thought, at the time, this had to be hyperbole. I was wrong.

Weeks later, I was at a book signing, and I was seated next to another first-time author. Unlike me, she had a tremendous amount of publishing knowledge from her time working at one of the major book houses. She gave me the same advice as my sales rep, reinforcing the idea that for books to be successful, they have to stick around. She—and I don’t want to reveal her name, for the sake of her privacy—told me a story about a book that her publisher had paid over $100K to acquire; this book had been out for two months and had sold ~two hundred copies. The math on that, as you might assume, isn’t good.

From the day Black Star Renegades was released, I was determined to make it a success; I doubled my efforts upon learning these horror stories of books that get released and, massive advance or not, disappear weeks later. Look, being candid—I knew Black Star Renegades wasn’t going to be a bestseller. The trick, I figured, was to make sure it stuck around.

I forget the exact numbers, but I did something like 40 events in 2018, ranging from bookstore signings, book festivals, comic conventions, and library appearances. Granted, I love this stuff; I love being part of book clubs, leading library workshops, and talking about writing in general. But 40 is a lot. And I’m exhausted.

The results, though, are real. Between Black Star Renegades and its sequel, We Are Mayhem (just released this week!), I’m going to earn out my advance (meaning my publisher will recoup the money they paid me to write these books). Would I consider these books to be a runaway successes? Nope. But—there’s something to be said about finding success in longevity. Because that’s what publishing is, for many writers: the ability to stick around. It’s what my writing teachers taught me, and what I teach my own students. Making it in this field is a marathon, not a sprint, and the marathon doesn’t end when your book is out.

Getting to the actual books, having the temerity to stick around is something that’s often on my mind. At the core of both Black Star Renegades and We Are Mayhem is a story that centers around what happens when the messiah figure (and we all know the prevalence of the messiah complex in fiction, and in real life) is taken off the playing field. What happens when a magical someone isn’t going to fix all the world’s problems?

I volunteered for the Obama campaign back 2008, and I’ll never forget the day after he won, when everyone saw the campaign’s success as the end goal—they figured Obama was going to fix everything, and that would be that. But that’s not that. Like finding success as a writer, the goal of bettering the world is an ongoing effort. You have to endure. You have to be dedicated to your cause and strive and sacrifice to make things work. That’s what I wanted my characters to discover once their messiah is gone and their backs are pushed against the wall. They face tremendous odds in having to topple an evil galactic empire, and without any hope for a magical solution to help see them through. But in this vacuum, they find hope in unity; hope in the will to defy the ruling order and fight for what’s right. And I think that’s a story we all need in our lives (especially these days).

So, We Are Mayhem picks up where Black Star Renegades left off. The galaxy is at war. Ace pilot Kira Sen is leading a group of resistance fighters against the Praxis empire while Cade Sura wrangles with the destiny—in the form of a powerful, mythical weapon—that was shoved in his hands. The book is a little bit of Star Wars, a touch of Arthurian legend, and a whole bunch of space adventure fun.

We Are Mayhem: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Caitlin Starling

The people authors know in their life are often significant in their fiction, either through their presence or their absence. In discussing her novel The Luminous Dead, author Caitlin Starling reflects on a person in her life who is very important to her, and how that person has made herself known in Starling’s writing.

CAITLIN STARLING:

When I was nine years old, my mother died.

It’s strange, losing a parent that young. I was old enough to remember her, but young enough that while I knew she’d been sick since I was born, and had a name for her death sentence (AIDS) since I was two, I hadn’t understood. After she died, I insisted on going back to school within a day, maybe two. I finished fourth grade. I finished elementary school, middle school, high school, and to all appearances, I moved on. I didn’t cry more than a normal child, didn’t act out more, didn’t really think about her as I grew up.

And then she started appearing in my writing.

It’s a well-worn trope, the dead mother who is convenient for the plot. She provides motivation, as well as logistical handwaving. The character doesn’t go to her parents for help, because she has no parents! And look, she has something to be appropriately angry about when the plot calls for it, but otherwise we’ll ignore the messiness that sort of death leaves behind in the real world. I learned from that playbook, of course, but instead of convenient, the dead mother began to dominate my characters’ lives. In my fandom days, I would fixate on figures who had suffered loss, estrangement, guilt, shame, and I would pry into them until I might as well have been writing original fiction.

When I finally began writing The Luminous Dead, I went back to what I knew. Gyre, the main character, doesn’t have a dead mother, but she does have a hole in her life in the shape of that mother. She has a father she’s emotionally estranged from, thanks to that hole they both share. And then there’s Em, who (spoiler!) lost her father young, then watched her mother fade away and, ultimately, disappear. The Luminous Dead is a claustrophobic story, a thriller set in a cave with just two characters, but more than that, it’s an emotional psychodrama. Every inch of the plot is drenched in grief, before we even know exactly what’s been lost, exactly how that’s pushed and pulled at the characters until they’ve arrived where they are.

Grief is not simple. It is not predictable. It is not clean, but not quite the mess you expect, either. It strikes at unexpected moments; after years of barely thinking about my mother, she roared back into my life because I was angry, angry that she wasn’t here to know my spouse, or to read my book, or just to sit and talk with me so that I could know her as an adult, not just a confused child. And then she was gone again.

I have friends who lost their mothers as young adults. I have sat with older relatives as they became orphans in their fifties. Every response is different, shaped by the relationships lost and the lives lived up until that moment. Even my own, which I know so well, looks different in different lights, at different times of day.

I see the world the way that I do because she is no longer in it. I treat distance and death in much the same way; when I can’t see somebody in front of me, my conscious mind forgets them, to save me the pain of losing them. When somebody dies, they simply stop existing, until a dream reminds me that we will never talk again.

Each story I write is drawn back to this first loss, whether I intend it to or not, and each time, I find a different facet of grief to delve into, to tease apart, to use to express elements of my own pain in dramatic form.

It doesn’t heal, necessarily.

But it does help.

—-

The Luminous Dead: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

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

The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear

Sometimes you think a book is going to go one way, and then it goes another, and that turns out — perfectly fine, actually! Elizabeth Bear had a bit of that experience with her new novel Ancestral Night. Here she is to explain the zigs and zags.

ELIZABETH BEAR:

Ancestral Night had a hard time getting born.

It’s not the book’s fault. It’s possibly the author’s fault—or possibly the fault lies in the stars. The world kept changing radically on me while I was writing it, you see—personally, politically, and profoundly. And as I and everything around me underwent those changes, the book wound up changing too.

I had originally envisioned something much more along the lines of an epic space opera with multiple points of view and a lot of focus on the politics. The politics were the big idea around which the world was built, after all. The idea of a massive, multi-species, basically benevolent but imperfect post-scarcity bureaucracy devoted to maintaining peace and the well-being of its citizens, however imperfect it could sometimes be in implementation, was appealing in 2014. I feel like it’s even more appealing now, frankly: it would be nice to believe in functional governments again.

I was inspired by Iain Banks and his Culture novels, but I wanted more detail on how a post-scarcity society and a completely novel form of government might work. The best, most egalitarian, fairest systems of government we have now are based on structures that are millennia old at their core. Democracies and republics actually use a series of bronze-age technologies to approximate some of the better aspects of group decision-making protocols that science shows us are the most efficient known way of getting stuff done, but the technology exists to remove even more barrier to making those protocols work.

And we live in an era when nationalism and factionalism and classism and bigotry are the biggest barriers we have to addressing existential threats so vast that they require species-wide cooperation, which is a thing we can’t quite seem to get our teeth into. And in that case, possibly the fault likes not in our stars, but in ourselves.

So what if we could fix some of the shortsightedness evolution has given us, now that it’s become maladaptive? What if the greatest weapon we have for enduring our survival into the future is self-awareness and the ability to look at ourselves and decide to be better people? Not just on a person-by-person level, but as a species?

What if we could decide to grow up and deal with our problems, instead of ignoring them and assuming somebody else will handle the cleanup?

In the universe of Ancestral Night, humanity made these decisions long ago—after we nearly died out as a result of not making them for too long. Our species made it to the stars, but in the wake of a near extinction event that left us with no options except to die, or to change. We developed a system of government without professional politicians, where decision-making is handled through distributed systems, simulation games, and advanced forms of modeling. Where people are called to serve as executives for a limited time, and it’s as annoying as jury duty.

The way the book turned out, however, all of this receded into the background. I found that to tell the story I wanted to tell, I needed a narrative focused on adventures and the vast distances of space, where travel even at faster than the speed of light takes months and there’s no quick means of communication between remote points. I needed to show my protagonist racing to beat propagating information, and wrestling with massive ethical questions.

That was how, on my third or fourth attempt to write the thing, I wound up in the head of salvage operator Haimey Dz, getting her to tell her story herself.

It was an odd choice—I recognized that even as I was writing it—to tell this story about deep time and vast reaches of space and personal responsibility and dueling ideas of what it even means to be human through a single first-person narrator. But it’s also a story about the unreliability of personal experience and memory and what a pain in the ass our atavistic and uncooperative neurology can be when we’re just trying to get stuff done, and I think that was why diving deep into one character’s experience was the tack that finally worked.

The only thing I’m sad about is that it meant I got to spend less time than I planned with Mantis Cop. I hope you’ll forgive me, although I understand if you don’t. I acknowledge going in that Mantis Cop is totally the best, and the point of the whole novel, and all the pages that don’t involve Mantis Cop are wasted. WASTED.

But that one small point aside, I am pretty happy with the book I finally got, after years of wrestling.

I hope it works for you too.

—-

Ancestral Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Kameron Hurley

In today’s Big Idea for her new novel The Light Brigade, author and Hugo winner Kameron Hurley explains how a bit of family history is the root of her story of soldiers in the far future.

KAMERON HURLEY:

I grew up around stories of war.

My grandparents met in liberated France in World War II. He was an American GI. She was a young French woman who had lived in Nazi-occupied France.  While he talked very little about the war –one of his jobs after the liberation was driving trucks of the dead out of concentration camps – she had many stories about encounters with Nazis and living under fascism. She would proudly display the scar on the side of her head where a bullet from a dog fight overhead between US and Nazi aircraft seared away her hair and flesh. The bullet lodged in the wall of a building behind her, and she had dug it out and proudly displayed it. Her literal brush with death.

She and her friends once found a Nazi boot along the river – with a foot still inside of it – and she told us about their terror about it being found, because for every Nazi killed in her town, ten French people would be rounded up and shot. She and her friends chucked the boot into the river, praying it was never found. Her father was part of the French resistance, and the SS came to her home often to harass him. When she married my grandfather, she thought she had won a great lottery. They spent the first seven or eight years of their marriage in France as the Americans helped rebuild after the war. Her disappointment on finally arriving to the United States, unable to speak English and faced with the terrible reality of enlisted military housing in the 1950s, was palpable in every story she told us about her earliest days here.

These stories had a profound effect on all of her children and grandchildren. Many joined the military, several became career soldiers. Others married soldiers or joined the reserves. I grew up understanding that sometimes there was a greater evil that we all must come together to fight. It would take me far longer to realize that in the vast majority of wars, who was good and who was evil was a lot more difficult to sort out. The far more common war is not one of external aggression, but of politics and resource hoarding and colonialism.

I went on to study the history of war, revolution, and propaganda. My Master’s thesis explored the African National Congress’s use of propaganda in the recruitment of women fighters in the struggle against Apartheid. This line of research opened horrifying and fascinating new doors for me into the role of propaganda, storytelling, training, and politics all play in creating, uplifting, solidifying, and destroying human systems of government.    

The initial spark for this story began with the idea of exploring a near-future stepping stone to instant teleportation – busting soldiers down into light. But what makes this a complex piece of work is the real world research that went into the politics and realities of war. The Light Brigade has a lot of big ideas: time travel, interplanetary war, dangerous tech, propaganda and psychological manipulation of civilians and soldiers. It also has a lot of ideas crawling beneath the surface, thoughts on how war changes us and our relationships, how conflict breaks us down, how hope for the future can keep us going long after a pessimist would have stopped.

Even knowing what I do about the horrors human beings have committed to themselves and one another, I still believe in the future. I believe in the future because I understand that the war machine is not some innate human compulsion. It is carefully nurtured and celebrated by those in power. The firing rates of soldiers in the first two World Wars were abysmal by modern standards. They threw all of these kids into battle and only 20% of them would actually fire at another human being out on that field. The rest shot without aiming at anything at all, or shot at the ground, or simply did not fire. The US military completely transformed how it trained soldiers after World War II, with an emphasis on teaching human beings how to murder each other without hesitation. Using advanced psychological tactics, the US military improved firing rates from 20% in World War II to 97% in Vietnam. And once it’s been taught, there is no program that’s been designed to reverse that training.

I have stories like these and so many others to share. I’ve used first-person accounts from soldiers – my friends, my family, and those I’ve collected through my research –to create the intimate, beautiful and horrifying world of The Light Brigade. In truth this book is less about predicting the future because so many aspects of this future are already here. Instead, it challenges us to rethink our present, and everything that comes after it. What is the future we want to build? How are we going to get there? Because everything is constructed. We can teach ourselves to create any type of future we want. But first we need to understand how much of the present is simply social conditioning.  

That’s what I love so much about writing in this genre. It challenges us all to rethink our assumptions and expectations. It’s a journey I hope you’ll all take with me.  

—-

The Light Brigade: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (click on the “excerpt” button). Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

The Big Idea: Mallory O’Meara

As a film producer, Mallory O’Meara knows that the amazing designs you see in movies don’t magically appear out of the thin air — they’re the work of dedicated creators and craftspeople. So when O’Meara set out to learn more about the mind behind the Creature from the Black Lagoon, she discovered a story that was every bit as interesting and compelling as the creature design itself. Here she is to tell her what she found, and what she’s sharing in her book The Lady From the Black Lagoon.

MALLORY O’MEARA:

My elevator pitch for The Lady from the Black Lagoon is that the book is Julie and Julia… but for monsters. It didn’t start out like that, though.

This book started out simply as a biography of Milicent Patrick, an influential artist whose legacy has been purposely obfuscated for decades. She was an illustrator, a concept artist, one of the first female animators at Disney and the designer of the iconic monster from the 1954 science fiction film CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON.

The press and attention that Milicent got as the designer of the Creature was the pinnacle of her career. It also caused her downfall. Her boss at the time was so jealous of her being in the limelight with the Creature that he fired her. Milicent never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood again and no one knew what became of her.

While I was researching and investigating her life, it became clear to me that I couldn’t write about what happened to Milicent Patrick without writing about why it happened to her. It’s easy to hear a sad story about a woman dealing with sexism in the 1950s and think, “Man, what a bummer. That’s just how things were back then!”

But it wasn’t just how things were back then. What happened to Milicent Patrick is still happening. It’s happening right now.

I know this because it happens to me. My job as a genre film producer brings me face to face with the same obstacles that Milicent dealt with. Working in the industry that she did – nearly seventy years later – gives me a keen insight into her story. As I wrote and researched, I found parallels between my experiences and Milicent’s.

That’s when I realized that the best way to show the urgency and importance of her story was to include stories from my own life as a female horror fan and filmmaker. Milicent Patrick’s body of work created a legacy that has had an incredible amount of influence on the worlds of art and film. (THE SHAPE OF WATER anyone?)

But the events that led to her credit being stolen left their own influence on the world. This influence is felt by female filmmakers and artists and writers everywhere, every day.

I saw this in action as I worked to uncover Milicent’s life. The difficulties I had finding out what happened to her perfectly illustrate the devastating and systemic effect bias and sexism have on us. So, I decided to also include an account of my investigation and the book morphed into what it is now. Part biography, part memoir, part detective story. What I found out about her life was even more astonishing than I could have imagined.

It’s also a call to action. I hope that someday, what happened to Milicent Patrick will never happen again.

—-

The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indiebound

Visit Mallory’s website or follow her on Twitter.